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"48 Hours" investigates social media "stranger danger" for teens

Josh Yager is a “48 Hours” producer. He investigated Nicole Lovell’s murder for the “48 Hours” episode, “Killer App.” The season premiere airs Saturday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

Don’t talk to strangers. It’s one of the first lessons we learn as kids.

But every day and night in America, millions of children are doing just that – on social media – and the consequences can be deadly.

In the privacy of their bedrooms into the anonymity of chat rooms and beyond, teens in particular are going online and getting intimate with people they don’t even know.  It’s easier than ever, as an increasing number of messaging apps allow users to communicate anonymously with strangers.

Consider the case of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell, who disappeared from her home in Blacksburg, Virginia last January and was found three days later in the North Carolina woods, stabbed and slashed to death.

Authorities discovered that the night she vanished, Lovell had been messaging online with an older man and apparently, sneaked out her bedroom window to meet him in person. If that wasn’t eerie enough, the man’s screen name certainly was:   “Dr_Tombstone.”  

Investigators learned Dr_Tombstone had been communicating with Nicole on Kik, one of those apps which make it easy to chat anonymously.  Kik claims to be used by about 40% of American teens. It’s been described as “Tinder for children” and also serves as a gateway to other apps where users can set the age and gender of who they want to talk to.  

It’s not just teenagers using Kik. As we learned during our investigation, predators use it too.

“Kik in my mind is a predator’s paradise,” says a 38-year-old convicted child molester we’ll call “Steve.” “You can be anybody.”  

“Steve” showed us how he used the Internet to hunt for vulnerable children. He created an anonymous Kik profile, listing himself on another app inside Kik as a “sad and lonely”15-year-old boy who was seeking 13-15 year old girls to talk to.  

He sent out a message – and got a response from an apparently teenage girl only 44 seconds later.  A second “young girl” reached out only about three minutes after that, asking ‘what’s wrong?’”  

Nicole Lovell's family: Be your kids' eyes and ears

“In two days max, I could have her sending me nude pictures,” “Steve” told us. “Once you make ‘em happy, you got their heart. Once you got their heart, everything else follows.”

In the months before Nicole Lovell disappeared, she’d told friends she was excited to have met an older man online. When she vanished, Kik provided authorities with information about activity on her account and police traced the “Dr_Tombstone” screen name to a most unlikely suspect – David Eisenhauer, an 18-year-old track star and freshman engineering student at nearby Virginia Tech – the same Virginia Tech where that infamous 2007 mass shooting took place.

Eisenhauer was arrested, and his statements to police led them to someone else - Natalie Keepers, 19, another Virginia Tech freshman engineering student and another most unlikely suspect. In high school, she actually had interned at NASA.  Police arrested Keepers too.

“It’s usually the people we least expect,” says Alabama prosecutor Pamela Casey, who has been sounding the alarm about social media since before Nicole Lovell disappeared by warning kids of the dangers and showing parents how to control the settings on their kids’ phones. “It can happen to anybody.”

Our investigation proved Casey correct.

In Spokane, Washington, we found a family who says social media hit their house like a tornado. Until it happened, Branden and Brandy Syrotchen seemed to have the quintessential American family. He was a PhD candidate and she was a church teacher.  They had raised their sons Joshua and Josiah and their daughters Ariel and Elizabeth with a love of God, country, sports – and each other.   

Then came June 7, 2013, when they got a stunning call from the mother of Elizabeth’s best friend. The Syrotchens were shocked to learn that for months, their daughter, then just 15, had been communicating online with a 30-something Seattle-area man.  The pair had exchanged graphic messages, photos and videos. And worst of all, the man, named Jason Richards, was on his way to Spokane that very night – apparently to take Elizabeth away forever. He was already sending messages from the car.

David Eisenhauer and Natalie Keepers: A dark duo?

The Syrotchens say the police could offer little help until Richards actually attempted to abduct Elizabeth. With their backs against the wall – and the clock ticking – Branden and Brandy hatched a bold plan to turn the tables on the man about to lure their daughter away.

“I just knew that if I didn’t do what I was gonna do, that I would never see her again,” Elizabeth’s mother Brandy said.

It’s a fear that Nicole Lovell’s mother Tammy Weeks understands all too well.

“I hope…everybody learns from this,” she said. “Hold their kids tight. ‘Cause it can happen to you.”

It’s a fear that Ted Livingston, who founded that chat app Kik, seemed to understand when “48 Hours” cameras confronted him at a conference in New York, though he told us today’s internet chat apps are a fact of life.

And that means it’s a fear that all American parents must continue to face every day. Social media has not only presented our children with new ways to live, but new ways to die as well.