The trial of a sexual predator in Guangdong province in southern China has implicated the smash-hit messaging app WeChat as the way that the man lured in underage boys. The accused, Li Jun, a former official at a Civil Affairs Bureau in the province, is said to have used WeChat – known in China as Weixin – to befriend and ‘groom’ 160 boys, some aged under 13, who were living nearby.
Li did this with a couple of WeChat location-based features, says the China Daily today, called ‘Drift Bottle’ (pictured right) and ‘Look Around’ to connect with strangers – specifically young boys – in his area. The court heard how Li somehow persuaded at least three of the boys to have sex with him, and the man faces “up to five years” in prison.
The case prompted the state-run paper to warn of the danger of such smartphones apps, which is something we’ve heard in the country earlier this year too. Criminals could also use these social apps with location-based tracking to find targets nearby for thefts, fraud, or for touting illegal services. The paper adds:
Police from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, said they have observed an increase in reported thefts and sexual assaults coinciding with the popularity of [such apps on] high-tech gadgets. […] The Hangzhou police said they have seen some 20 Weixin-related theft and fraud cases since last December. Their counterparts in Beijing, where specific data are currently unavailable, confirmed seeing a similar increase.
WeChat’s ‘Drift Bottle’ and ‘Look Around’ are features that are turned off by default, and require the user to turn them on in order to be found and receive messages from strangers. Both those features are plug-ins (sort of like browser add-ons), so they can be uninstalled if a user wishes. Most people use WeChat – and other apps like Line and KakaoTalk – to talk with friends and family. The makers of WeChat, Tencent (HKG:0700), expect its mobile-only messaging app to surpass 300 million users next month.
Dangers lurk, of course, in any form of contact with strangers, so these messaging apps – even flirty ones like Momo – are mostly safe, and it’s up to developers to build in safeguards, and for users to be wary and exercise common sense. Parents, too, need to be aware of what kinds of apps and social services their own kids are using.
The court has yet to reach a verdict in the Li case.
[Source: China Daily]