Police have warned over a chilling "Momo" behaviour on messaging apps that appears to be targeting children.
The attack sees malicious people use a horrifying photo – of what appears to be a woman's face attached to a bird's body – which has been given the name Momo. Someone using the horrifying message will add affected children or even adults on messaging apps like WhatsApp, and once they accept use that contact to send a variety of horrifying messages.
Police have drawn attention to instances where the contact appeared to encourage children to hold a knife to their throat and threatened their family.
The Momo messages are a long-running trend online, having been around at least since summer. But they appear to have flared up once again, leading police in Northern Ireland to watch out for the safety of anyone that might be added by people using the "Momo" image.
"Even basic open source research suggests that 'Momo' is run by hackers who are looking for personal info," the police warned. "Whatever or whoever is behind it, there is no disputing the content being sent is horrendous.
"The set up can come from countless other apps – anything with a chat function. A 'curse contact' sends a number and tells you to contact them on Whatsapp. One video of such interaction in America I've seen shows an ominous sounding voice recording being sent to a child telling them to take a knife to their own throat.
"Another threatens family if a 'challenge' is not completed. It's chilling viewing. There are numerous variations and of course now imitators."
Cyber security professionals echoed the warning that any contact on a messaging app like WhatsApp is a potential danger, even if they are not using such a horrifying image.
"Knowing what your children are up to online can be a constant battle of trust, especially when we need to ensure that children understand the real importance of not giving away personal information to someone they do not know," said Jake Moore, cyber security specialist at ESET.
"It can sometimes be very challenging for parents to keep up with the fast moving digital age but communication still plays a vital role when it comes to teaching children about the real risks of the internet.
"Adding someone on WhatsApp may seem harmless or even fun at first but it can be very damaging in the future once they are a “contact”, especially if this new connection then asks you to act out something you usually would not feel comfortable in participating in."
The origins of the name Momo and of the image that is used to depict it are unusual, but there is absolutely no suggestion that it began with any link to the WhatsApp challenge or certainly to any supernatural powers. Similarly, how there began to be rumours about the WhatsApp behaviour is a little unclear, too, and the warnings about it appeared to be more the result of scare stories and hearsay than anything really significant.
But all of those rumours do appear to have encouraged people to take part in the trend, such that the warnings have become self-fulfilling. The "Momo" image is now in use across the internet, by people who wish to scare others.
As such, anyone using the Momo image is likely to be doing so with some kind of nefarious intent, even though they are likely to be a whole host of different people with a variety of different aims. Some might be hackers or other online criminals, as the police suggested, while others could simply be attempting to pull cruel pranks.
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