A Watchdog in Their Pocket

Who's texting your child's cell phone? A new service can monitor sexual predators

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Danny Kim for TIME

Mike Harris, a 52-year-old detective in Jefferson County, Colo., spends much of his time as a teenage girl. Part of an Internet-investigations unit set up to ensnare sexual predators online, Harris hangs out undercover in chat rooms and on social-networking sites where predators might lurk. But in the past couple of years, he's noticed that the guys who proposition him quickly try to move the conversation off-line to cell-phone calls or text messages, under the assumption that such communications are harder to monitor.

These predators obviously haven't heard of My Mobile Watchdog (MMWD), a cell-phone surveillance service that can capture e-mails, texts and photos and store them online. Since Harris' office started using the service in 2008, it has caught more than 180 perps, including 42 so far this year.

Although there's no shortage of companies that monitor kids' activities online--check out Net Nanny, which recently added mobile monitoring, or CYBERsitter--MMWD is one of the only services that comprehensively tracks cell-phone usage. It's no niche market: at least 74% of U.S. teens carry cell phones, according to the Nielsen Co., as do more than 1 in 3 kids ages 8 to 12. The software is the brainchild of Bob Lotter, CEO of California-based mobile-technology company eAgency, who was inspired to develop it after helping a friend investigate the case of an 11-year-old girl exposed to lewd photos and text messages from a 29-year-old she'd met at a water park. Lotter provides the service free to law-enforcement agencies; it's now being used in a dozen jurisdictions around the country.

Thousands of parents have registered for the service ($9.95 a month for up to five kids per family) since it became commercially available last year, in hopes of deterring predators, as well as cyberbullying and sexting. Anytime an unapproved person communicates with a child, the parent gets a copy of the message. A pending upgrade will allow it to work with more devices--MMWD is available only for smart phones--and let parents know who communicates most with their kids. (If the number of texts from your daughter's soccer coach suddenly balloons, for example, it could be cause for concern or at least curiosity.) "There just aren't enough police in the world to protect our children," says Lotter.

That's why Mychael Martin of Thornton, Colo., signed up her daughter Brityn Mykhail, 17, for the service. Two years ago, Brityn was stalked by a 30-something man from Pittsburgh with whom she'd been texting; he sent her nude pictures and showed up at her school. Now Martin evangelizes about the software to anyone who'll listen. "I'm always like, You've got to get this on your phone," she says.

Not everyone's so gung-ho. MMWD is not spyware: the user receives a periodic message that the phone is being monitored, and there's nothing to prevent an angry teen from bypassing the software by using a friend's phone or buying a cheap, prepaid one on the sly. MMWD "has a very good upside," says Sharon Nelson, president of Sensei Enterprises, a Fairfax, Va., computer-forensics firm. "But it has a downside: the kid is going to hate it."