TikTok is a popular social networking smartphone app on which users share short videos of themselves lip-syncing, dancing or just being silly. It's a platform designed for going viral, combining the high engagement of short-form mobile videos with irreverent charisma reminiscent of the retired Vine app.
The app is fun when used in the right spirit, but as with any internet destination that gets a lot of attention, it attracts some unsavory behavior. A recent report from Tenable, an information-security company, brought to light some common TikTok scams users encounter.
Here's everything you need to know about TikTok, plus how to save yourself from being scammed and what you can do as a parent of a young TikTok user.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a social-media platform owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that owns more than a dozen content-creation apps. TikTok absorbed its predecessor, musical.ly, in November 2017 right as musical.ly was taking off. TikTok now has more than 1 billion active users.
Most TikTok users are under 30 years old, and the app is especially popular with teens. It's a place for them to engage with their favorite influencers, participate in viral internet challenges, and collaborate with their friends.
While TikTok started with lip-syncing videos, the platform is best known for its library of memes and absurd sound clips, which are reproduced and remixed over and over by its users.
Is TikTok safe?
In an atmosphere where cyberbullying is a major threat to teens using social media, TikTok is a safe haven. By internet standards, it's a nice app. It's free of culture wars, political debates, and hate speech. While it certainly has its share of trolls and instigators, most people are positive and uplifting in TikTok's comment sections.
Compared to other social networking sites, TikTok has rather extensive privacy settings. Users can block reactions, disable messaging, hide their accounts from search, and more.
So from a social standpoint, TikTok is reasonably safe. Where users tread into precarious waters is engagement with scam accounts. From false accounts impersonating popular TikTokers to promises of adult-only content, TikTok scammers have found success exploiting the app for social or financial gain.
Scam and seduction: the troubles of TikTok
Tom's Guide spoke with Satnam Narang, Tenable's senior security response manager and "social media scam whisperer," about the kinds of exploit traps users should watch out for while scrolling:
"With TikTok getting so popular, it made sense to start looking into it more closely to find out how scammers are leveraging the platform," said Narang of his research, for which he tracked the activity of specific scam accounts for about six months.
Narang found scammers taking advantage of the cost-per-install (CPI) networks of adult dating websites and other services looking for paid downloads. Accounts promoting adult-themed dating share videos of women stolen from Instagram and Snapchat in an attempt to seduce unsuspecting users to pay for expanded 18+ content access.
These profiles might appear on the "For You" page, which is a feed curated by a TikTok algorithm based on your behavior. Narang realized, though, that adult dating accounts employ certain tactics to avoid detection, such as placing periods between the letters of suggestive words. They’ll also use original sounds in videos rather than existing ones, limiting discovery.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," Narang said. "As long as there's money to be made, CPI scammers are going to find ways to monetize."
TikTok's impostor-account problem
Along with financial-scam accounts, Narang discovered an abundance of impostor pages — users posing as popular TikTok creators and "piggybacking off their success" to gain popularity of their own.
"Social-media currency is worth chasing — it doesn't require you to create content," Narang said. "If you engage with content from a real page, a 'for you' page will surface impersonator videos."
Once an impostor is satisfied with the account metrics they've amassed, they'll convert it to a personal account preloaded with followers and likes. Narang called it "disingenuous."
"You think it wouldn't be so hard to figure out," Narang said. "But it presents confusion for users."
TikTok took down the spam accounts Narang tracked. We’ve reached out to the company for comment.
TikTok: what parents can do
Parents should make a habit of having conversations with their children about social media. As a parent, you may not be able to monitor your child’s entire digital presence, but you can encourage open communication and teach them how to create safe profiles. Ask your child to see their privacy settings and clarify any terms that might be confusing to them.
If your child is resistant to monitoring, ask them about their favorite creators and challenges. They may be more willing to show you other users' content instead of their own.
As for adult content, Narang said from his experience it's unlikely that suggestive videos will surface on your child’s "for you" page at random.