A Tinder-style app used by teenagers is causing major concerns after numerous reports of potential sexual extortion have been made to Canada’s national tip line.
Cybertip.ca, where Canadians can report cases of sexual exploitation of children online, is warning parents about Wizz, an app that has millions of users worldwide.
The app touts itself as “where fun comes from the unexpected. Wizz is the ultimate online platform for random chats with people from all over the world.”
It is similar to Tinder, where users are asked to swipe through profiles, pairing random strangers in video chats.
“We started tracking in 2021. We’ve had over 180 reports specifically naming the app Wizz, tied to financial sextortion and other luring-type incidents,” said Catherine Tabak, a senior Cybertip.ca manager. “In comparison to 2022, we’ve had 10 times as many reports pertaining to the app in 2023.”
Of these reports, 91 per cent concerned sextortion, with boys victimized in 93 per cent of cases.
The majority of victims reported were between 15 to 17 years old.
“Sickeningly, kids, teens, tweens represent the ultimate target for online predators. They’re young, they’re curious, they haven’t fully developed their adult-like sense of cynicism,” said Carmi Levy, a technology analyst and journalist.
He adds this kind of digital crime is on the rise in this vulnerable age group.
“In many cases, they’re rebelling against mom and dad, they want to use technology that mom and dad don’t really understand, and all of those factors converge into what is essentially fertile ground for those who would commit sextortion and other crimes against this audience,” Levy tells CTV News.
Exploiting personal details
Reports to Cybertip.ca have alleged predators are leveraging their victims’ personal information, as well as other social media profiles, to get what they want.
“Sextorters seek out victims on apps that allow strangers to connect, using accounts with stolen images that trick youth into thinking they are speaking to another teen,” Cybertip.ca notes. “Predators may then move conversations onto a platform where images and videos can be shared.
There, a sextorter can trick the youth into sending nudes.
The organization notes teens are often willing to do what is asked of them because the person has created a false sense of security by sending naked images first or by pretending to have mutual friends or interests.
“One of the things that has us concerned, specifically about the app, is that it does encourage users to friend each other across multiple platforms,” Tabak said. “So, we will see a lot of initial contact happening on Wizz specifically and then being moved to other platforms like Snapchat where kids feel more security in sending nude content or engaging in sexual acts with this idea that, that content is going to be deleted immediately, which we know is quite the opposite.”
Wizz does use an “age verification” process using artificial intelligence, but Cybertip.ca says it is far from perfect.
“Female Cybertip.ca analysts who are 23 and 25 years old went through the facial recognition process and were able to create accounts on Wizz as 16-year-old males,” it notes.
CTV News has reached out to Wizz for comment.
Wizz’s website states that the company organizes different age groups into separate communities: “For instance, a 14-year-old user will only have the ability to interact with peers who are 13, 14, and 15 years old.”
The site also says, “Our system alerts our safety experts whenever any text, image, or video violates our community guidelines or suggests hazardous behaviour,” which includes sexual exploitation.
Talk to your kids
Levy explains that the best prevention for any kind of online extortion is to talk to your children.
“The first thing that parents can do really is open up a dialogue with their kids. Let their kids know that they are part of their digital journey with them, they can come to them with any question or concerns without fear of reprisal or punishment,” he said. “It needs to be a no-judgment zone, and parents need to be alongside their kids on that digital journey.”
Levy notes that otherwise, parents are essentially throwing their children to the digital wolves.
“It’s often tempting for parents to ban the app, take the device away, set strict limits on it, install monitoring on the device,” he tells CTV News. “But nothing could be worse for a child. As soon as you set those restrictions on children or on teens or tweens, the first thing they will do is they will go around them.”
English Montreal School Board (EMSB) spokesperson Mike Cohen and Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB) spokesperson Darren Becker say their boards are aware of the app, but since cell phones are not allowed in classrooms, they are not aware of any incidents involving students.
“We’re hearing about Wizz, and there are others already that exist,” Becker tells CTV News. “We have to remain vigilant. Parents have to remain vigilant, and we do our best.”
What do you do if your child tells you they have been victimized?
“Obviously, the first thing you do as a parent is you make sure that they are OK and that the source of this abuse has been neutralized,” said Levy.
He says it’s important to then do a thorough “forensic examination” of the device: collect data, take screengrabs and immediately contact police.
Montreal police (SPVM) confirms its sexual exploitation department has received “several complaints of sextortion in connection with the Wizz application.”
However, the force points out it is one of many apps frequented by young people.
“New applications emerge regularly, and our investigators remain on the lookout for new trends in collaboration with our partners,” police state.
Cybertip.ca, which is operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and is part of the federal government’s National Strategy for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation on the Internet, is recommending parents remove the app from their children’s phones.
Anyone with concerns is invited to visit Cybertip.ca for more information about sextortion, as well as to find resources on how to support your child and report instances of online sexual exploitation.
Youth are also encouraged to access support, resources, and help if they have been sexually victimized online at NeedHelpNow.ca.