The Momo Challenge is a hoax, but real online threats are out there

 
Posted3/8/2019 5:33 AM
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  • Best as we can tell, the Momo Challenge often appearing through the Facebook-owned app WhatsApp is a hoax, but there are plenty of real online threats that parents should be wary of, according to a suburban expert.

    Best as we can tell, the Momo Challenge often appearing through the Facebook-owned app WhatsApp is a hoax, but there are plenty of real online threats that parents should be wary of, according to a suburban expert. Associated Press

  • Operating a drone may be a fun hobby, but be careful where you fly it. State Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines has introduced legislation that would make it a crime to invade someone's privacy with a drone.

      Operating a drone may be a fun hobby, but be careful where you fly it. State Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines has introduced legislation that would make it a crime to invade someone's privacy with a drone. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, 2015

Everybody, it seems, is warning us about the online "Momo Challenge," or telling us it's a hoax.

The grotesque "Momo" -- a bug-eyed human/bird creature created by a Japanese artist -- supposedly is popping up inside apps in online videos meant for children, such as "Peppa Pig" episodes, and telling kids to hurt or kill themselves. Online searches tell of children who've been seriously harmed while acting out a Momo challenge, and several social media and online companies have issued statements about the purported threat.

Kane County Sheriff Ron Hain and the Mount Prospect police are among the law enforcement authorities worldwide who've warned parents to check their children's devices for signs of Momo.

And Richard Wistocki, a former police officer who speaks about children's online safety, said that was a good idea, even though it turns out Momo is just an overblown urban legend.

Why?

Because parents need to routinely check the computers, tablets, smartphones, iPods and other Internet-connected devices to see what their kids are up to, he says.

Wistocki, a retired Naperville police officer, is president of Be Sure Consulting. He speaks to parents, law enforcement officers and schools about cyber safety, juvenile sexting, drug use, internet-based predation and more.

Fake ages

"I imagine some troll decided it would be funny," Wistocki said when asked to explain how Momo went from an unusual piece of art to a perceived (but bogus) threat to children around the globe.

However, he said, there remain many very real threats to keep parents on high alert.

Wistocki said some apps popular with young people, such as TikTok and Whisper, can allow others to see a user's location. TikTok was hit with a record $5.7 million fine last month by the Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting names, email addresses, photos and locations of children who use the app.

Although most apps have age limits, kids can get around them by using fake birth dates. Many use the year 2000 because it's a simple round number, so predators look for somebody whose profile indicates they are 18 or 19 years of age, Wistocki said. When they see pictures or messages that indicate the user is obviously younger, they start communicating with them.

Wistocki said many parents suffer from what he calls "NMK disease" -- "not my kid." He recommends parents install apps such as Web Watcher on their children's devices to monitor their activity.

We've met before

The Feb. 15 shooting rampage at the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora was not the first time two of the officers injured at the scene had dealt with the shooter.

But in previous encounters, the shooter was a victim.

Aurora police officer James Zegar
Aurora police officer James Zegar

In August 1999, officer James Zegar helped investigate a shooting during a liquor store robbery. The man who would later kill five workers at Henry Pratt was shot in the left cheek as he sat in a car outside the store, according to police records.

Aurora police officer John Cebulski
Aurora police officer John Cebulski

And in 2009, the name of officer John Cebulski came up in a request for an order of protection the Pratt shooter sought against a former girlfriend. The request said the ex-girlfriend signed him up for 20 magazine subscriptions, arranged to have his mail forwarded out of state, filed applications for credit cards in his name and vandalized his car.

"The Petitioner is unhappy with Cebulski's response or lack thereof on defending his claims," the request states. "The Petitioner has been the victim in this whole ordeal and Cebulski has not done anything."

Legal win for convicted killer

While he's still a ways off from a getting new trial, a former Hanover Park man serving a 100-year prison term for a brutal 2009 hammer attack that left his pregnant girlfriend and unborn daughter dead won a small legal victory last month that keeps his hopes alive.

Rafael Alvarado is serving a 100-year sentence for the 2009 killing of his girlfriend and her unborn daughter in Hanover Park.
Rafael Alvarado is serving a 100-year sentence for the 2009 killing of his girlfriend and her unborn daughter in Hanover Park.

In a unanimous decision, the state's First District Appellate Court ruled a judge should consider whether convicted killer Rafael Alvarado had ineffective assistance of counsel -- his lawyer did a bad job -- when he tried to win a new trial in 2016.

That bid for a new trial revolved around Alvarado's contention that his trial attorney in 2011 didn't thoroughly investigate a key witness against him. A Cook County judge dismissed those claims in 2016, but appellate justices last month ordered the lower court to give them another look because Alvarado's attorney failed to take some key procedural steps in preparing his case.

Alvarado, 42, was convicted of first-degree murder and intentional homicide of an unborn child stemming from what prosecutors called a jealously-fueled attack on Norma Favela, 31, who was eight months pregnant, at the Hanover Park house they shared. Alvarado tried to flee to Mexico after the killings but was captured in Melrose Park along with a man he'd asked to drive him to the border.

He's now serving his time in the maximum-security Menard Correctional Center downstate with a projected parole date of May 2103.

Mind your own business

Drone operators who make spying on their neighbors part of their highflying hobby might be in for an unpleasant surprise, if one suburban lawmaker gets his way.

State Rep. Marty Moylan recently introduced legislation that would make it a crime to fly a drone over another person's occupied residence to record video/audio or livestream images and in doing so invade another person's "reasonable expectation of privacy."

The offense would be a Class A misdemeanor. That means a conviction could lead to as much a year in jail -- though supervision or probation is far more likely for most -- and $2,500 fine.

"Drones offer a new way to see the world, but that way must be mindful of others," said Moylan, a Democrat from Des Plaines. "Individuals can and will use drones beyond hobby purposes, and we have to address that concern proactively."

House Bill 2874 has been assigned to the House's Judiciary-Criminal Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on it March 12.

• Got a tip or thoughts on a cops and crime-related issue to share? Email copsandcrime@dailyherald.com.

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