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A friend-finding app offered a ‘safe space’ for teens — sextortion soon followed

Wizz, an app that offers to connect young people of similar ages, has spurred its own niche of internet content. But child safety watchdogs warn that has led to sextortion.
Wizz app icon on a smartphone screen
Wizz has emerged as a popular but niche social app, but reports of sextortion are on the rise.Owen Berg / NBC News

A Tinder-like app popular among teenagers and young adults has allegedly been used to extort users by tricking them into sending sexually explicit photos, a problem that internet safety watchdogs say is indicative of the challenges of keeping young people safe on social media.

The app, Wizz, allows users to scroll through profiles that show a person’s picture, first name, age, state and zodiac sign. Wizz advertises the app as a “safe space” to meet new friends and allows users as young as 13 to join and connect with users of a similar age. 

Its basic functionality resembles popular dating apps. When users open the app, they are presented with another person’s profile. They can then choose to send that person a message in the app’s chat function or swipe left to see a new profile. 

Child safety watchdogs have questioned whether the app’s safety system is effective.

The app, which is based in France, has been downloaded more than 14 million times worldwide since it launched in 2019 and more than doubled its monthly active users in the last year, according to Sensor Tower, a company that tracks apps. It’s at times ranked in the top 10 social networking apps on the Apple App Store.

That makes Wizz a relatively successful but still niche social network — the kind that can avoid the scrutiny heaped on bigger tech platforms. And since Wizz is a French app, it does not have to report child safety issues to U.S. authorities, experts told NBC News. The app also has no parental controls, according to Bark, a company that makes parental control products.

John Shehan, senior vice president of the exploited children division and international engagement for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit group tasked by the U.S. government with tracking reports of child sexual abuse material online, said his organization has received more than 100 reports from members of the public about minors allegedly sextorted on Wizz this year, putting the app behind only Snapchat and Instagram for such reports.

Sextortion is an increasingly common online crime in which people are enticed into sending sexually explicit photos. Once the photos are sent, the receiver of the images threatens to share them online or with family or friends unless the victim sends money.

“That’s just people knowing to report to the cyber tipline, so the incident rate could be much much higher,” Shehan said.

According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P), a national charity focused on child safety, Wizz was the seventh-most mentioned platform in sextortion reports to its tip line between June 2022 and last month. 

Stephen Sauer, director of the C3P’s tip line, said they received 75 reports in relation to Wizz since Jan. 1, compared to 15 reports in the six months prior. He said he could not speak to the reasons for the uptick.

In the last six months, around 90% of C3P’s reports involving Wizz were related to the alleged sextortion of young people, he said. He added that some young users in these cases, ranging from 13 to 17 years old, viewed or talked about Wizz as a dating app. 

“They are often looking to connect with other similar-aged peers through the app and that’s how they get extorted,” Sauer said.

It’s unclear who was behind the sextortion or if the sextortion efforts were part of a larger pattern of online criminality.

The app has become popular enough to spawn its own genre of online content in which people post videos of themselves using the app and attempting to woo people they find attractive. In many TikTok videos, users have shown screenshots of their chats on Wizz, where they test their “rizz,” a slang term used by young people to describe someone’s level of charisma or attractiveness. It rhymes with the app’s name Wizz, which teens picked up on and turned into “rizz” challenges on Wizz.

When contacted about alleged safety issues on the app, Wizz provided a press release in which CEO Aymeric Roffé said: “Wizz understands parents’ concerns about their teenagers’ online safety. We are committed to providing a safe platform for everyone, including young adults and teenagers.” 

Abuse of the app by predators fits in with what authorities and experts say is a broader rise in sextortion schemes targeting minors online. Recent studies have linked harmful content and predatory activity to teen social apps. 

Social apps geared toward connecting teens such as Yubo, Wizz and Wink have been released in the last decade to varying levels of popularity. Experts say platforms with a chat feature and young user base inherently come with risks, including popular platforms where adults and minors can interact.  

It’s an issue that has been the subject of a growing body of research.

Teen dating and social apps are among the online venues used by adults to meet and communicate with minors, according to a research paper published last year by Brian Neil Levine, director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Cybersecurity Institute, on the efficacy of investigations of online child exploitation material. 

A study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal last year analyzed Apple App Store reviews on friendship apps marketed toward teens, including Wizz. Its findings “point to an alarming presence of predatory and fraudulent content in apps marketed towards young adolescents.” 

In February, the FBI warned that the financial sextortion of minors online has become a global crisis, based on thousands of such reports  it received last year. 

Wizz does make some efforts to prevent adults from interacting with minors. The app uses third-party services to moderate complaints made by users through the app, according to its press release. Wizz matches users with individuals in their age range to ensure user safety and estimates users’ ages when they upload a selfie through an artificial intelligence tool provided by Yoti, an identity technology company. According to Wizz’s privacy policy, if Yoti cannot provide an accurate enough age estimation, the app uses AI data company Hive to manually attempt to validate a user’s age. 

The use of AI to determine ages has been scrutinized, as such systems can perpetuate and even exaggerate human biases.

“As we want to make sure that our community members can only connect with people that are in the same age range, we are verifying every user’s age via our trusted partner Yoti,” Wizz says on a part of its website dedicated to questions about safety. It added that the company manually reviews pictures of people who claim the system made a mistake while identifying their age.

Wizz also says in its “rules of acceptable use” that users who break its rules can have their accounts suspended, and that the company may report illegal activity to law enforcement.

Hive did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Yoti directed NBC News to Wizz.

Some child safety experts have questioned the effectiveness of that system. Most social media apps have a form of age verification, with some using AI like Wizz and others going as far as to require users to upload pictures of their government ID. But few rely on it to ensure safety in relation to the core function of their app.

Detective Sgt. Katie Feehan of the New Jersey State Police’s Internet Crimes Against Children Unit said Wizz’s age verification process gives young users a false sense of security that they are talking to users their age. 

“Any app that has a chat feature and kids are on is potentially dangerous,” she added. “And if these sextortion bad actors are on the Wizz app, it’s something that parents need to know about and kids need to know, you know, the dangers of using it.”

Shehan of the NCMEC said it’s common for people in sextortion schemes to create “fictitious accounts posing as typically an attractive young female. And they’re specifically enticing young boys to produce a sexually-explicit image of themselves.” 

Sauer said that some of C3P’s reports indicated that online predators were able to lie about their age on Wizz to target minors.

“The bigger concern is that there’s a mix of adults and youth on the platform and that the distinction between those two groups doesn’t seem to be restricted based on what we’re seeing,” he said. 

Bark, the parental control company, criticized the app’s age verification system in a review on its website, which said the “risk of predation is huge on Wizz.” 

Kelly Newcom, a parent and founder of Brave Parenting, a Texas-based online safety education group for parents, said in an interview that she thinks Wizz “has way more dangers than it has actual benefits to make real friends.” 

In lieu of controls for parents, some schools have started to step in to warn parents about the potential uses of Wizz. In the last four months, five schools in the U.S. and the United Kingdom shared online safety infographics and guides about Wizz with parents.