HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The popular Pokemon GO app is a viral sensation, but it’s being linked to crimes.
Police in St. Louis say four teens robbed victims after luring them to a specific spot using the game, and in Wyoming, authorities say a woman playing the game found a dead body in a river.
Now, there’s growing concern about the game and the privacy not only of users but of property owners who want nothing to do with it.
First, a quick overview: Pokemon GO is what’s called an augmented reality game, so when you open the app, it loads a map that’s based on your actual surroundings, much like a navigation app.
As you walk around in real life, there are different landmarks in the game and you can catch Pokemon around your city.
But the game comes with real-world risks that become even more real with growing numbers of participants.
Seeing 20-somethings walking around staring at their phones is not new, but this week, there’s a pretty good chance they’re hunting.
Kevin Brandt, for instance, spent Monday in Harrisburg’s Riverfront Park searching for creatures. He’s one of the millions who have downloaded the app in the last week.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It gets me outside and it doesn’t cost any money.”
“It’s real world, real time,” Brandon Gill added. He was among a group of people using the app in the park near State Street, many of whom had never met before Monday.
Simply put, Harrisburg is full of hunters.
But all this activity is causing problems for some Midstate cops: Departments around the area report people trespassing late at night to find Pokemon.
In West Manheim Township, police say officers came across a man on private property Sunday night.
“Appearing suspicious, the officer investigated further and learned that the occupant was hot on the trail of capturing a Pokemon,” the department wrote on Facebook. “The driver was sent on their way with a warning for trespassing and one less Pokemon in his Pokedex.”
Other local departments report similar incidents.
“There have been other individuals who have hurt themselves because they have been more involved with looking at their phones and not paying attention to their surroundings,” said John Sancenito, president of INA, Inc., a private investigator and security consultant company based in Dauphin County.
One of his clients, he said, called him Monday to ask what to do about people coming onto their property at all hours of the night to collect resources in the game.
Sancenito said this is just the start, especially as these types of apps become more popular.
“Some of these gyms and other locations [in the game] are perfect opportunities for predators to set up on those locations and wait for people playing the game to come,” he said.
Those locations are common to everyone — they show up on all the phones using the app and attract people to them.
“There’s a little bit of a concern,” Dyanna Zollo said. “I’m not about to go walking around at night by myself.”
Bottom line, be cautious considering the game thrives on bringing strangers together.
“It’s definitely nice to come out and meet a whole bunch of people,” Hans-Christian Maldonado, another in the large group, said. “I don’t really know these people. I’m with, like, two people here, but we’re all friends now.”
“It was fun when it was a video game,” Brandt said, “but now it’s a social experience.”
The app does contain a number of disclaimers for users, both in the sign-up phase and every time you open the app, warning them to be aware of their surroundings and just to be smart.
But there are other risks that have to do with the technology itself. For instance, users have to give the app access to their GPS data while they’re using it, allowing the game to pinpoint locations. Plus, in the service agreement, the app asks for certain permissions to access other data on users’ devices as well.
Sancenito said he’s also seen knock-off apps; imitations meant to look like Pokemon GO.
“And then they’re giving that software access to their GPS coordinates, they’re giving them potentially access to their photos and other data on their phone, and that’s creating a security risk for those individuals,” he said.