DENVER - A new app called "Talking Angela" has parents and children worried that it's actually a front for predators with sinister intent.
Gianna Cordova, a Jefferson County middle school student, thought "someone was behind the eyes, watching you at all times even if you're off the app and your phone's off."
She heard that the app "was telling kids to do inappropriate things or saying, like, 'I'm watching you.' Kids (thought) that their lives were in danger."
"The kids are really sending us messages, almost daily, about Talking Angela," said Jefferson County District Attorney Investigator Mike Harris.
Talking Angela is a cartoon, female cat users interact with by talking with her, petting her and buying presents and food for her.
Talking Angela sits outside a French cafe waiting for the user to give her gifts or play with her. Angela can receive clothes, make-up, accessories and an array of beverages that have various effects on her. The drinks can give her the giggles, create an earthquake, distort her vision or make the lights go out.
Depending on where you pet Angela, she has a different reaction. Touch her knee, she will knock it against the table. Tap her nose, expect her to sneeze. If you pat her head a few times, she may even fall out of her seat. Users can pet Angela, but she will scold you if you poke her too often.
When the app is downloaded it can be set for 'adult mode' or 'child mode.' Only the 'adult mode' allows users to type their messages to Angela and give her small chocolates that have individual messages like fortune cookies. In the 'adult mode' Angela will start her own conversation with the user—usually on the topic of fashion, best friends or movies. If the app is set on "child mode," Angela will toss bird feed to attract birds to the cafe and is restricted to repeating only what the user says into the microphone.
Harris has reservations about many of the apps children use, but he says the rumors about Talking Angela are just that, rumors. "It's not driven by some creep behind the app that's getting all this information and processing it. It's just part of the program," said Harris.
Harris is one of the country's top experts on internet crime. To date, he and his partner have helped to arrest more than 700 child predators. In the last 4 months alone, they have arrested 21 predators who used technology to lure children for sexual purposes.
Cyber safety education not only aids in prevention, but can also generate valuable case leads and the ability to stay ahead of the online trends with kids. Harris and his partner take advantage of that by running an in-school cyber security initiative called the Cheezo Educational program. That program prompted Cordova to reach out to Harris on the Cheezo Facebook page when she was worried about the Talking Angela app. Harris was able to research the app, and inform Cordova and her friends that the app was not a tool for online predators.
Although Talking Angela is a benign app, parents whose children have access to a smart phone, tablet or computer should be aware of the dangers lurking behind the screen.
"Sometimes we get busy and we forget," said Harris. "Our kids add an app, before long our kids have 20 apps that we don't even know about."
Harris suggests that parents and children should avoid social networking apps that include location-based services and suggests parents should be involved in the creation of all accounts.
"They need to set it up where they put in a password, they review the app with their child, and they know what the app does," he said. "By helping your kids go through this you are also finding out what it's all about and there is that communication going back and forth."