SF City Attorney Says Social Network Is “a tool of choice for sexual predators to target underage victims”

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued MeetMe, a social networking website, in Superior Court today, claiming it illegally gives underage teenagers’ personal information and geographic locations to strangers without obtaining valid consent.

The lawsuit alleges the company’s inadequate privacy protections make children between the ages of 13 and 17 vulnerable to being targeted by sexual predators, stalkers and unscrupulous companies.

The practices “compromise the privacy, safety and security of millions of minors in California and throughout the country,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the people of California, charges the website’s procedures are unfair and fraudulent business practices in violation of the state’s Unfair Competition Law.

It asks the San Francisco Superior Court for an injunction blocking the allegedly illegal practices and an award of civil penalties of $2,500 for each act violating the law.

The website MeetMe.com is operated by MeetMe Inc., based in New Hope, Penn., and is aimed at enabling users to meet new friends. According to company figures cited by the lawsuit, MeetMe has more than 40 million users, of whom about 25 percent are under 18.

Company chief executive officer Geoff Cook declined to comment on the lawsuit, but issued a statement saying, “We care deeply about the safety of all of MeetMe’s users.

“We review hundreds of thousands of photos posted to our services every day, and we compare the information provided by our users to a sex-offender registry. We employ a 24-7 team that responds to reports from our users and work closely with law enforcement when appropriate to assist in their investigations,” Cook said.

Children under 13 are not allowed to participate in MeetMe.com and adults who acknowledge being over 18 are not permitted to view the pictures and profiles of children in the 13- to 17-year-old age group.

But the lawsuit alleges the website does not verify the birthdates of users, thus enabling potential predators and stalkers to list a false birth date and then browse through the photographs, personal information and locations of young teenagers who may be nearby.

Teenagers who register with the site are asked to give their names, zip codes, gender and date of birth, and the default setting for accounts allows other users to view that information, the lawsuit says.

Users must check a box agreeing to MeetMe’s terms. But the lawsuit alleges the supposed consent by teenagers to distribution of their information is not valid because the explanation of the terms is hard to find on the company’s website, difficult to read, vague and ambiguous.

“An average teenager who signs up for MeetMe would not understand that he or she is giving MeetMe permission to collect, use and share his or her personal data with other users and with third party companies in this way — and would not appreciate the nature, extent and probable consequences of his or her acquiescence to these practices,” the lawsuit contends.

The lawsuit cites news reports of several examples of instances in which men accused or suspected of soliciting sex with underage teenagers had meet their victims through MeetMe.

Herrera alleged in a statement, “MeetMe has become a tool of choice for sexual predators to target underage victims, and the company’s irresponsible privacy policies and practices are to blame for it.”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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