(NewsNation Now) — A chat site used by a recently-located teen before her disappearance is raising eyebrows with its perceived lack of supervision.
Omegle was a site visited by a recently recovered 15-year-old girl prior to her disappearance and led to the teen meeting up and staying with an adult male in Chicago.
The girl, from Gassville, Arkansas, disappeared Oct. 1 after she left a note in her room that read, “I need to do this, so don’t look for me. I will be back and I will make you happy for me. I hope you know I love u.”
On Nov. 24, the girl’s story was featured on NewsNation’s “Missing” series. Two days later, her mother, Nicole McKiernan, said she got a tip from a man who believed he’d interacted with the 15-year-old in Chicago. McKiernan passed the tip on to U.S. marshals, who found the teen “safe and unharmed,” but staying with a man in his 20s at his apartment.
The teen “has explained to me that he was the nicest guy that she has ever met,” McKiernan said.
An investigation found the teen met the man on the Omegle app, which allows strangers to randomly videochat. Experts say it fits a pattern of human trafficking — predators posing as sympathetic friends or love interests to lure young women away from home and groom them.
“When she talks about him, you can just see this, like, glimmer or light in her eye, like he is just the best thing since sliced bread,” McKiernan said.
McKiernan said her daughter was told she had to clean the apartment twice a week, diet, and exercise daily. She was not allowed to leave the apartment when the man was not there.
Experts say the free Omegle site, which can be accessed by kids as young as 13, has led to myriad issues for minors.
“Omegle might be one of the riskiest social media platforms available on the internet,” said Marc Berkman, CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety.
There is no need to register on the site, which debuted in 2009. Its popularity has been spread by social media sites including TikTok, and because of restrictions on in-person interaction, Omegle became more popular during the pandemic.
“There are no rules,” McKiernan said. “There are no age limits. A 14-year-old can get put with a 40-year-old. It’s an absolutely disgusting website.”
The site does say users must be 18 or older to enter, but kids as young as 13 can be on with parental permission.
“That’s a warning, really, for parents, Berkman said. “We would love to see Omegle put up age verification software.”
Berkman sees the lack of such softward as an invitation to very serious problems.
“Unfortunately, the culture of Omegle has become such that a lot the people that are chatting are looking for sexually explicit content, are looking to see the person that they’re chatting with engage in sexually explicit acts,” he said. “And so it’s wildly unsafe for child users, period. And because of that, we’ve seen cases of sexual exploitation, kidnappings, traffickings all come out of children using Omegle.”
Berkman says many of the problems follow a predictable pattern.
“Predators will get usually a young teen girl on a site like Omegle and they will engage in conversations, strike up a relationship and eventually try to get this young girl, young woman to flash or expose a body part,” he said. “Often, they are filming it. Now sometimes, they then go back to the target, let them know that they have this video recording and they blackmail them for additional content, over and over.”
“Our internet is messed up,” McKiernan said. “It is putting our children in way too much danger.”
Berkman recommends parents talk to their kids about online safety, warn them not to talk to, or meet up with, strangers, don’t engage in activity that makes them feel uncomfortable and never send sensitive or private materials.
NewsNation reached out to Omegle for comment on their policies, but has not heard back from the site. It is important to note, however, that Omegle makes clear that users who are 18 or older and looking for adult content should leave Omegle and visit an adult site.