Sarasota sheriff warns parents about apps targeting kids

You may have heard your children talking about Snapchat, Kik, Whisper, or even an app called Calculator. But Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight says you should be keeping a close eye on them.

They might be hiding a secret online world of abuse, nudity, or worse.

Sheriff Knight his agency recently arrested 21 men who thought they were chatting online, through one of these apps, with a young boy or girl.

The sheriff's office said the men ultimately showed up, thinking they were there to have sex with a 12- to 14-year-old boy or girl.

"They seem pretty casual about the way they're approaching. There doesn't seem to be any nervousness here from the ones who are walking up," said Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight while watching a video of a suspect arriving for the rendezvous. "It bothers me, it sickens me to see this happen with our children."

Sheriff Knight announced the arrests during a press conference Tuesday morning about what his detectives called Operation Intercept V.

Sheriff Knight said some men arrived with condoms while other offered drugs. They all wound up in handcuffs.

Instead of children, the suspects were actually talking to undercover deputies.

"The message today is for parents to be good parents. Know what is on your child's phone, check these apps," said Sheriff Knight.

He warns parents to keep an eye out for nine specific apps that could be found on your child's cell phone:

- Bumble: It's similar to the popular dating app, Tinder, however, it requires women to make the first contact. Kids have been known to use Bumble to create fake accounts and falsify their age.

- Snapchat: It's one of the most popular apps of 2018. While the app promises users can send a photo or video and it will disappear, recent features allow users to view content for up to 24 hours. Snapchat also allows users to see your location.

- Kik: This app allows anyone to contact and direct message your child, sometimes anonymously. Kids sometimes use Kik to bypass traditional text messaging features. Kik gives users unlimited access to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

- LiveMe: This live-streaming video app uses geolocation to share videos so users can find out a broadcaster's exact location. Users can earn coins within the app and use them as a way to pay minors for photos.

- Holla: The app's makers admit it's an "addicting" video chat app. It allows users to meet people all over the world in just seconds. Reviewers say they have been confronted with racial slurs, explicit content, and more.

- Whisper: This is an anonymous social network that promotes sharing secrets with strangers. It also reveals a user's location so people can meet up.

- This app has become known for cyberbullying. The app encourages users to allow people to anonymously ask them questions.

- Calculator%: This is one of several secret apps used to hide photos, videos, files, and browser history.

- Hot or Not: This app encourages users to rate other users' profiles, with the focus on physical appearance. It also allows users to check out people in their area and chat with strangers. The sheriff says the goal of this app is to "hook up."

Sheriff Knight says checking your child's phone and apps is the best defense against potential predators, who have become increasingly tricky when targeting victims.

"I would get into these apps and test each one of them and it may be interesting to see who your child is communicating with," he said.

The charges against the 21 men include the use of a computer to solicit a child to commit a sex act, traveling to solicit a child to commit sex acts, and violation of probation for lewd or lascivious exhibition.

Among those arrested during Operation Intercept V was former Disney World mechanic Albert Vira, III of Davenport.

Ubaldo Bautista of Bradenton is charged with the use of a computer to solicit a child to commit a sex act and traveling to solicit a child to commit sex acts. The sheriff's office says Bautista is originally from Mexico City and has prior arrests for battery, obstruction, driving while license suspended, DUI, shoplifting, giving a false name and violation of probation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was notified of his arrest.

Juan Mejia-Rodriguez of Bradenton is charged with the use of a computer to solicit a child to commit a sex act and traveling to solicit a child to commit sex acts. Mejia-Rodriguez is originally from Columbia. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was notified of his arrested and he was picked up Saturday where he remains in ICE custody.