SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Sexual predators and stalkers use MeetMe.com to find underage victims, San Francisco's city attorney claims in court.
As attorney for the People of California, City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued MeetMe Inc. and Does 1-50 in Superior Court.
The state claims the online social network makes it easy for bad guys by collecting a users' "geolocation data," which the company passes along to users, often mobile users, who can see who is nearby.
Herrera said in an accompanying statement New Hope, Pa.-based MeetMe exposes children to serious safety risks.
"Sadly, these risks aren't hypothetical. Dozens of children nationwide have already been victimized by predators who used MeetMe to coerce minors into meeting," Herrera said in the statement.
A Fresno man was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a minor he met on the website, Herrera claims in the lawsuit, and a man near Sacramento used "apps including MeetMe to send text messages and photos of his genitals to underage girls in order to first strike up a sexting relationship and then try to meet for sex."
Another man posed as a 16-year-old boy to meet and have sex with two girls who were 12 and 15, the complaint states.
MeetMe does nothing to verify user ages, nor does it check user email addresses against sex offender registration lists, according to Herrera, who says in the lawsuit that other social networking companies do.
"In short, anyone - including sexual predators, stalkers and other criminals - can sign up to use the MeetMe app and can input any birth date they want, and once they do, MeetMe enables them to browse through photographs, locations and other personal information of teenagers who are in close physical proximity," the states.
A new user can easily create a bogus log-in identity and supply a false age, and the website is a gift to stalkers, Herrera says in the complaint.
"MeetMe collects geolocation data from its users - including millions of teenagers- when they log on, and uses that data to show users who is nearby and how far away they are: e.g.,500 feet, 1200 feet, .5 miles. ...
"By clicking on an icon labeled 'Locals,' any user who self-identifies as being less than 18 years old can see the profile photo and proximity of dozens of minors who are nearby. Moreover, the user can 'filter' the 'Locals' result to show only girls or boys of a certain age - e.g. to display only 14-year-old girls," the complaint states.
Such a search will yield profile photos, complete with a teenager's full name, age, home town and chat dialogue history, the city attorney says.
"These publicly viewable chats not infrequently include questions about what pornographic pictures a teenage girl would be willing to send or other graphic sexual content," he adds in the lawsuit.
Herrera says the data that MeetMe collects also helps advertisers market to the website's 40 million users, "including millions of teenagers." But teenagers are not able to legally consent to the kinds of risks the company creates, as says the average teenager signing up with MeetMe could not "appreciate the nature, extent and probable consequences" of how their personal information could be used, Herrera says in the lawsuit.
San Francisco analyzed the readability of the site's "Information and Disclosure" section using the Flesch Reading Ease test and found it well beyond the threshold of "very difficult," according to page 9 of the 14-page complaint.
"An average teenager creating a MeetMe account would not understand from the tangled web of ambiguous and misleading statements MeetMe provides that s/he is allowing MeetMe to collect geolocation and mobile device identification data, share that information with other unidentified users and send that information to third party contractors," the complaint states.
The state cites media research showing that 25 percent of MeetMe's users are younger than 18. And medical research indicates that youngsters are particularly inept at the sort of decision-making that could keep them safe while using the app. Teenagers' "ability to self-regulate is limited when they face choices with apparent immediate rewards and few obvious costs," the complaint states.
Teenagers are vulnerable also in that while they are driven to form new relationships, they are less aware than adults about the importance of privacy or the risks of disclosing personal information, Herrera claims.
The "ramifications can be quite serious - putting teenagers at risk for exploitation of their private information by unscrupulous companies or predatory individuals, with potentially devastating consequences."
Herrera claims MeetMe violates California's unfair business practices code by collecting location and personal data without valid consent and by failing to tell users how it uses the data.
He wants MeetMe's deceptive business practices enjoined and a $2,500 fine for each unlawful or unfair act, plus costs.