Free call app abuse rising / Anonymous online message boards used as ad hoc dating sites

Applications providing free Internet calls and messaging are rapidly spreading among smartphone owners, but problems have emerged as some people are using their application ID numbers on online message boards, turning them into de facto dating sites.

In some cases, middle and high school students have become involved in sex crimes as a result of posting on these boards. But because the boards and the free call applications are operated by different firms, application companies are uncertain how to deal with the issue.

Many messages from people seeking partners can be found on a smartphone message board titled “friends wanted,” including posts reading, “Come on if you have money and can play with me! I’m 16,” and “A girlfriend wanted.”

Alphanumeric IDs are displayed along with names of those who posted the messages. The IDs function as a kind of telephone number for users of the LINE application offering free calls.

If a user activates LINE and enters an ID, they can call or send a message to the person who posted the message.

Users of such free call applications are increasing rapidly. More than 25 million people in Japan alone have registered with LINE, for example.

Smartphone users can use a free call application to call or message others who have downloaded the same application. They can use an online network, which digitalizes their voice, instead of normal phone lines.

LINE, which Tokyo-based NHN Japan Corp. started in June last year, has become a big hit. Other free smartphone application services include Microsoft Corp.’s Skype and Kakao Japan Corp.’s Kakao Talk.


Message boards problematic

In tandem with the growing popularity of such free call applications, message boards on which application users can post their messages along with their application IDs are seeing a boom in users.

As people can exchange messages anonymously without a telephone number or e-mail address on message boards, an increasing number of people are using the boards to get acquainted with strangers.

A Yomiuri Shimbun reporter interviewed a person online who claimed to be an 18-year-old third-year high school student and who posted a message saying, “I need money.”

“I want to save money to run away from home,” the “girl” said, adding that she started using the message board when she was 17 and has sold her body to men six times since then.

A number of criminal cases involving message boards have been reported nationwide. On Thursday, the Kyoto prefectural police rearrested a 32-year-old unemployed man on suspicion that he raped a 15-year-old high school student after forcing her to take sleeping pills.

The man allegedly met the girl via a message board and lured her into his car after exchanging messages on the board. The man is suspected to have raped two other girls in a similar way.

In March, another unemployed man, then 20, was arrested on suspicion that he attempted to rape a second-year high school girl.


Too many messages to delete

The 28-year-old president of a Tokyo company that manages one such message board told The Yomiuri Shimbun: “An overwhelming number of middle and high school students are using our message board, and my company’s advertising revenues are rapidly increasing.”

According to the president, his company’s message board has about 600,000 users across the country. After the company launched the service in December, the related application was downloaded by 6,000 new users every day, the president said.

On average, about 10,000 people use the service daily, posting about 20,000 messages. Four employees take turns monitoring the postings and delete improper messages, such as those regarding paid dating, but there are too many to keep up, according to the president.

“We can’t say that our board has no messages about paid dating. It’s impossible to check all the messages,” he said.

NHN Japan began asking about 50 companies that manage message boards to stop their services in May, saying: “We have nothing to do with such sites. Our service is not intended to help people find dates.”

However, the president of one message board managing company dismissed the request.

“Companies like ours and LINE are interdependent. We have no intention of ceasing to manage the site. We don’t violate the law,” he said.

The dating site control law obliges site operators to confirm whether site users are under 18. In addition, certain regulations are imposed on cell phone game sites that the Metropolitan Police Department has asked to improve their operations because they have many postings “similar to those found on dating sites.”

Observers believe this prompted an increasing number of people to turn to smartphone message boards, which are minimally regulated.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug 28, 2012
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