SHERWOOD, Ore. – They are bullies, hiding in plain sight, using an online weapon to hurt kids: anonymous texting services.
"Daphne" received an anonymous bullying text on her phone. The Sherwood teen does not want to use her real name, for fear of further bullying.
She has gained weight recently, and is feeling sensitive and vulnerable about it. The anonymous text that showed up on her phone while she was at home said: "Oink, oink.”
"It was a pretty cutting remark, adding salt to the wound," Daphne said. "It's a horrible feeling that somebody out there has my number who I wouldn't want to have it and can hurt me with that."
The text came from a website that allows people to send texts without identifying themselves or their phone numbers. Daphne's friend, teen Freddie Grant, also of Sherwood, sees a danger in letting abusers strike from behind the digital curtain.
"And you could just keep going and you could build up this repertoire of harassment for like months, and people kill themselves over this stuff," said Grant.
The Problem Solvers took a closer at the site that helped the bully send Daphne the anonymous message, called textem.net, with Freddie's mother, Sarah Horner.
"It's too easy," Horner said. "This seems to me a gift-wrapped package for the abuser."
The site offers a way for you to block your number from future anonymous texts. Horner believes that's not the best solution. "In this case, it's a little too late. The hurtful message got through," she said.
The site explains that you, the message recipient, will pay for the text, not the sender. "You pay for your mean messages? Great," Horner responded, "That makes it even worse."
"I don't think these websites can be created for any purpose other than someone being mean," said Daphne. "I mean, you're not going to think someone is going to send an anonymous happy birthday text, I mean what's the point in that? Someone’s going to be, like, I can't stand to have them know I'm wishing them a happy birthday, heaven forbid."
The Problem Solvers contacted the website for more information. Textem.net responded by saying the intent of its service is for you to send free texts, not to bully or attack. The person emailing on behalf of the company stayed anonymous, and did not include his or her name in the email.
The company representative pointed out that its terms of service say textem.net does not condone harassment of any kind. The company said it has worked with law enforcement to bring justice for victims of bullying.
"For every complaint we have received we have provided instructions on how to address it immediately," the statement went on to say. "...we have been around for more than 6 years and we have offered such a useful free service for millions of Americans. If we were to receive constant complaints about anonymous messages we will have to address and review our policy about anonymous messages."
Just blocking your number at textem.net is not enough. There are many sites that offer anonymous texting. An attacker can turn from one to the next as you block your number. One site, anontxt.com, said it had to shut down because of too much bullying and abuse.
Horner wants to let parents and kids know about this weapon, so you can prepare yourself in case of an ugly attack from a hidden abuser.
"I know that bullying happens and it has forever, but that doesn't mean we should take it for granted and give resources to people to make it easier," said Horner.
There are some things you can do if you get an anonymous abusive text:
- Block your number through the website.
- Complain to the website.
- File a police report.
- Ask your phone company to block all text messages sent from websites.
- Try filing a complaint with the FCC.
A note: some schools and law enforcement groups are using anonymous texts to allow people to report bullying and crimes. A number of schools use this site: http://connect.blackboard.com/tiptxt. It allows administrators to contact students back to find out more information about a bullying incident.