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Brandon Bailey, San Jose Mercury News, Published June 18 2012

Mobile flirting site Skout suspends service for teens after sex assaults

Mobile flirting startup Skout has closed its online service to teens after three recent cases in which men were accused of sexually assaulting children whom they met on the Skout network – in some cases while posing as teens.

The incidents highlight concerns about the vulnerability of kids using online social networking services, at a time when the much bigger service Facebook has been exploring ways to safely allow children under 13 onto its network.

Skout announced its decision recently in a blog post that said, “In recent weeks, we’ve learned of several incidents involving a few bad actors trying to take advantage of our younger members.”

CEO and founder Christian Wiklund added in a press release that the company is working with experts to devise new safeguards after the recent events, which he did not describe but called “simply unacceptable.”

In recent weeks, news reports in three different states have described cases in which children were allegedly abused by adults they met on the Skout service.

A 21-year-old Wisconsin man was charged with sexually assaulting a child after he was spotted performing sexual acts with a 13-year-old boy in a local park, according to a report by the Muskego Patch, an online news service for Muskego, Wisc. According to the report, a criminal complaint filed in the case said the man posed as a 16-year-old on Skout to meet his alleged victim, who eventually sent the man sexually explicit photos of himself.

In a second case, a 37-year-old Ohio man was charged with raping a 15-year-old girl whom he met while pretending to be a teenager on Skout, according to WBNS-TV in Columbus, Ohio. Police reportedly said the girl thought she was going to meet another teenager who would take her to visit her boyfriend, but instead the man took her to his apartment and assaulted her there.

In a third incident, a San Diego County man was charged with unlawful intercourse and other felonies involving the alleged sexual molestation of a 12-year-old girl whom police say he met on Skout, according to U-T San Diego, formerly The San Diego Union Tribune.

Skout is a San Francisco-based startup that bills itself as a mobile service for people who want to meet others who are interested in chatting, networking or flirting.

The company started as a location-based social network but shifted gears two years ago to focus on meeting and flirting. Last year, it added a separate service for teens aged 13 to 17 after learning that many kids were already using the mobile app, according to The New York Times, which reported on the recent sexual assaults.

Skout says it has a “zero-tolerance” policy against inappropriate behavior on the service, using both human monitors and software to weed out nude photos or sexual messages.

“However, it’s become clear to us that these measures aren’t enough,” Wiklund said on his company blog. “For now, we believe that there’s only one thing we can do: until we can design better protections, we are temporarily shutting down the under-18 community.”