GENEVA, Ill. (WLS) -- The ABC 7 I-Team looks into harassing messages and the so-called "burner" apps that allow the sender to operate in secrecy.
Consumer Investigative Reporter Jason Knowles talked to the family of a 12-year-old girl who got hundreds of harassing texts connected to mysterious phone numbers. The victim and her mother said they had no idea who those numbers belonged to because they were generated from an app. It's a troubling form of bullying that can be difficult to stop .
"As I started reading them out loud and my daughter was standing there and she started bawling, hysterically, and she started shaking, and she was like 'Mama, you don't need to read that, you don't need to read that,'" said Brandi Klein of Geneva, Illinois. "There were so many."
Klein's middle school-aged daughter received hundreds of sexually harassing and graphic texts sent from anonymous phone numbers.
"This qualifies as cyberstalking, it also qualifies as cyberbullying, parts of it is sextortion," Klein said.
The Kleins didn't know who was sending the texts because the offender was using a messaging app that creates random phone numbers.
"They are all inappropriate, they are mostly sexual in nature, um, when my daughter would steer the conversation in another direction, the texter would steer the conversation back to sexual," said Klein. "I was in tears reading them."
As soon as Klein discovered the texts, she filed a police report with the Kane County Sheriff's Office. Investigators said they issued three subpoenas related to the phone numbers in question to try to figure out who was using those numbers. Detectives and Klein believe the mystery numbers were generated through an app called TextNow.
"As kids become more technologically savvy, we see a lot of stalking cases and cyber bullying cases," explained retired detective Rich Wistocki. "All I have to do is go to the app and I can generate a number in minutes."
CHILD CYBER-BULLIED? WHAT PARENTS NEED TO DO
Wistocki, a retired Naperville police detective turned tech consultant, holds seminars around the country to keep law enforcement current with technical innovations, including a recent TED Talk. He advises parents on keeping their kids safe.
"There are always new apps coming out. If you create a new app, you have to be responsible because people will find out a menacing way to use them. And that's what we have to be in front of," he said.
Wistocki said that the so-called anonymous app used in the Klein case, is one of many on the market.
"They sell them as an anonymous app, untraceable numbers, but that couldn't be farther from the truth because you have to go to Google Play or the App Store. What information is attached to that? E-mail, credit cards, IPs, what you buy and where you live," Wistocki said.
KEEPING KIDS SAFE. WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW
Police can subpoena that information from any app company, but it may take time. And even if they get an IP address, it could lead back to public Wi-Fi.
TextNow told the I-Team via email that they "will investigate the account" and that they "have close relationships with law enforcement and cooperate quickly with subpoenas and investigations." In Klein's case, Kane County detectives say so far, one subpoena came back with no responsive information. The other two have not yet come back.
TextNow also said they are "currently implementing preventative measures for phishing/scammer services" because "occasionally bad actors will abuse the system". They said they "have an entire team dedicated to preventing, and, if necessary, stopping abuse."
"It was over a thousand lines of text," Klein told Knowles. "I couldn't finish it because I started bawling from the horrible things that they were saying to her."
TextNow said "In the cases of harassment ... users can text #STOP to any number to block that person from calling and texting you."
But the Klein's changed their daughters phone number shortly after the ordeal. Based on the language and other clues they now believe the texters may be fellow students.
"If it's an adult, they go to jail, plain and simple," Wistocki explains. "If it's a child, kids make mistakes. We need to hold the parent and the child accountable, that's the issue."
Klein said her daughter is still struggling emotionally over the incident. Experts say if you find out your child is being harassed, take screen shots of the texts immediately and don't reach out to the predator. Then contact police; they can preserve the texts and possibly trace them.