Is TikTok Really That Dangerous?

By now you've most likely heard of TikTok, the streaming platform that's taken the world by storm. But how safe is it?
TikTok App Screen

Launched in 2016, TikTok is a highly entertaining social media website. As of August 2023, it boasted 1.677 billion users worldwide. The app pulls you into 15- to 60-second videos on almost any imaginable topic. Before you know it, hours of your day have passed to the mindless scrolling. With a massive user base, could this current popular social media platform be hiding something more…nefarious? While it’s no secret that dark places on TikTok exist and are easily discovered if you want to find them, could the app be dangerous for those who simply like to be entertained?  

Instead of spending hours combing through debates on whether or not the app is dangerous to the average adult, I went straight to a highly knowledgeable and trusted source and had an extensive chat with DJ Seals. His background includes a lengthy law enforcement career in the metro Atlanta area. He was a detective for most of that time, eventually joining SWAT for several years.

Early on, he demonstrated an incredible aptitude for computer investigation. Once his superiors recognized his inherent skill in this area, they sent him to computer investigation school, where he trained extensively using technology to find criminals who didn’t want to be found. Several years ago, he established the criminal investigations division for the company where he is currently employed. He travels the US and globally, teaching and training law enforcement using his vast knowledge of computer systems for internet investigation. Below is the transcribed interview.

Everything You Need to Know About TikTok

Scrolling TikTok Videos

ST: Thank you, DJ, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions regarding social media, in general, and TikTok specifically. What makes you uniquely qualified as an expert on whether or not TikTok is really that dangerous?

DJS: I guess it would be my decades’ worth of investigating these crimes and finding people like the largest purveyor of internet child pornography on the East Coast in the history of the East Coast. He was using social media to lure young women into sending pictures and then actually physically going to him. When the investigation concluded, I was asked to start teaching the methods of how to do this. I have taught at the Pentagon, Quantico twice, the CIA, and hundreds of police agencies throughout North America, South America, and Europe in the last twenty years.

In fact, I still receive phone calls from folks who were once in my classes who have lost someone, such as an older adult or a child, and later found that they [the victims] were talking to someone on social media. These former students of mine have come to me, even years later, to request my assistance to help find their loved ones. So far, thank God, I have found everyone these folks have lost. And I do it because I think those of us who have the ability and knowledge to do this kind of investigative work and have done as much research as I have into any type of fraud—especially social media work—I think it’s our duty to give information that basically says, “Look, if you’re going to use it [social media], fine. But you need to completely understand what you’re getting yourself into and the pitfalls that could be there.”

Woman looking at her phone

ST: Speaking of social media pitfalls, most of us are very aware of its dangers for young children and teens. What are the biggest dangers for women ages 45 and older?

DJS: I think the biggest fallacy we tell ourselves as we age [as far as using social media] is we’ve got this. Nobody is going to dupe me. We think we’re smart enough to understand it. But if we understood how quickly it and its technology are growing—and most people don’t understand that—and the capability behind it and what kind of data it’s pulling, I think most people would be extremely cautious.

A while back, my aunt sent me a picture of this swagger-looking guy with a $500 haircut, and I’m thinking, well, all right. Look at that. Great for her. Then she called to tell me she had been talking to this guy. It started on social media. He hit her up on Instagram, and I eventually figured out he had run a long con on her. And that’s where so many people fall for the scams. No one on these platforms readily admits they are criminals and straight-up demands fifty grand from you. No. They’re working the long con. They’re watching what you post, your patterns, your moods. And the good ones will start really soft and slow by simply liking some of your posts. And they’re doing this based on your patterns.

They’re smart enough to understand what makes you tick. And that’s how it began with my aunt. This guy popped into her DMs and started chatting her up about “mutual” likes and interests. Then comes the sob story with the personal feelings and the emotions. After she sent me all the information and I did a bit of digging, I realized he had been contacting her in several different ways for nearly a year before any money actually changed hands. Yes, she willingly gave him money, but it was all given under false pretenses. And by the time it was done, this guy had taken $125,000 from her.

I was able to locate the group of people running this con—and it’s never just one person, always a group running these scams. It’s what they do for a living. The problem is we are lulled into believing it will never happen to us. But I think the biggest issue is that social media has replaced personal interaction. We mistakenly believe that just because we “talk” to people on social media—meaning those we don’t personally know in real life—we know them. But we have to understand that, in reality, we know nothing about them.

TikTok Social Media

ST: You stated your aunt was scammed on Instagram. Are the same things happening on TikTok? I assume they are.

DJS: Oh, yes. But TikTok is a little different. We first have to understand that every social media company collects massive amounts of data on all of their users. Now, I can already hear one of your readers arguing how they have their privacy settings on. Yes, you do. But those aren’t for the company. If you read the terms of service, the company is collecting everything they possibly can off your device—your location, your friends, your contacts, your chats, your pictures. And all of this data becomes their property.

I’ve read every single one [social media’s terms of service] I can find. Hang with me because we’ll get around to TikTok, but this is very important. TikTok is the hot social media platform today. Two years ago, when I taught my Safety on Social Media class, there were an estimated 5,000 social media sites. I have taught this class twice in the last three months and always keep my data current. There are now over 15,000 social media sites. Why is that? It’s because they make a lot of money. So I ask you, where do you think they’re making all their money from? The apps are free. Where’s the money coming from? Most people answer that the money comes from ads. True. Some of it does.

In reality, they’re making most of their money by selling your data, and you permitted them to do so when you clicked the approve button regarding their terms of service. You gave them the right to own your data legally, and now that they own it, they can legally sell it. Now imagine these groups of people committing fraud, most of which are overseas. Their job is to compile everything they know about you from this data, from their recon of your social media activity, and send it to the groups looking to work the long con on you. And we’re just handing it [our data] away by clicking that we approve those terms of service.

Data collection; beware scams

ST: It is scary how we give people we don’t even know so much power without even realizing it. We’ve talked about this in terms of social media in general, but what about TikTok specifically do you feel is the biggest danger?

DJS: I’m going to read you just a snippet from TikTok’s terms of service. Anyone can go online and read this for any social media platform, but they’re extremely long and boring, and the juicy stuff is usually somewhere around three-quarters of the way through all the legalese. But here is just a small portion of TikTok’s terms of service:

“We collect certain information about the device you use to access the Platform, such as your IP address…,” So, basically the mailing address of your device.

“…user agent, mobile carrier, time zone settings, identifiers for advertising purposes,…” Like whether you’re a mom, dad, or a kid; when you go online, what you’re shopping for, etc.

“…model of your device, the device system, network type, device IDs, your screen resolution and operating system, app and file names and types…,” Let’s talk about that for a minute. You’ve now given them access to every app and file on your device(s)—literally everything.

“…keystroke patterns or rhythms,…” Now, what do they need with keystroke patterns? Things like your lock screen password and passwords for all the apps you have given them access to can be determined by those patterns.

“…battery state, audio settings, and connected audio devices. Where you log in from multiple devices [such as your phone, iPad, computer, etc.], we will be able to use your profile information to identify your activity across devices. We may also associate you with information collected from devices other than those you use to log in to the Platform.”

This gives them access to any device with which you log in to TikTok and every single thing on that device. You are basically giving them carte blanche access to every device you have. Let’s say your home security system is connected via Bluetooth to your phone. You have given them legal access to it by clicking on approve in the terms of service. And anything connected via Wi-Fi at home and work is also up for grabs. And that little paragraph is just one of the 15-20 pages of terms in TikTok’s terms of service. Imagine giving someone you don’t know the keys to your kingdom and trusting them enough that they won’t misuse them.

Warning or red flag

ST: Wow. Well, if we’re not all scared enough and getting off TikTok right now, what would be some of the red flags we might see to identify scams on the app?

DJS: It’s almost a little difficult to identify because of all of the data being sold and bought from these apps. I’ve had about half a dozen ladies this year alone who are 55 and older who have all contacted me because a “famous actor or actress” from some show they’ve watched, usually not an A-list one [actor/actress], had seen that they liked a video and reached out asking them to follow them on another platform. And so begins the long con.

ST: If your aunt, who was scammed out of over a hundred thousand dollars, had reached out initially, what advice would you have given her?

DJS: At that time, she was in a state of mind where she needed contact with someone outside her family. And we all get that way. She wasn’t dumb. She was brilliant. So, after it was all said and done, I taught her to use a reverse image search on her internet browser. Taught her to simply run a Google search on a person’s profile name. When I ran a search on her scammer’s username, I got more than 100 returns that this was a known scam. All it takes is a little searching. So, do your due diligence.

We think social media is a safe playground for adults. But it’s even more dangerous because you’re comfortable. Would you get on the subway in NYC at 2 a.m. after you just took out $10,000 from your checking account and are holding it in a bag? Would you do that? No. Because your brain tells you it’s probably not safe. But you’re giving all the keys to the kingdom to people you don’t know that allow access to other apps and other documents. So I ask people, is your banking information on your phone? Do you have a list app on your phone with social security numbers? Do you have a list app on your phone that has passwords? Do you have a password app on your phone? And even if all that is password protected, remember, social media companies now have that stuff, too. So all day long, it’s like we’re riding around on a NYC subway at 2 a.m. with ten grand in our lap, expecting it not to be stolen.

So, let’s talk about your readers who feel like they aren’t lonely or gullible. Here’s the deal: They’ve already allowed the scammers in the door by simply agreeing to the terms of service because these apps are free. If we don’t pay anything for these apps, and they’re making billions of dollars a year, how are they doing that if no one is paying for it? The answer is if the app is free, then you are the product. In 2019, social media sites reported, and not all declared, earnings of 36.14 billion dollars. By 2022, they had a 379% increase in revenue. That’s 173 billion dollars. Have you ever heard of a business increasing its profits by 379% in three years? Eighty-one percent of all internet crime begins on social media.

Most of that crime is financial. When it comes to the share of total users on social media, females above the age of 45 account for 43.6 % of users on the planet. So, if you’re a criminal looking for the best payoff, the biggest slice, so to speak, who would you target? And that’s why I get calls, over and over again, from people who’ve lost money because they were caught in the scam. And the victims are very, very bright people, two of whom held a PhD—some of the most intelligent people I know. But it was the long con.

And I think where we go wrong is as soon as we say, “There’s no way I’m going to be conned,” we’re already one step closer to being a victim because we’re too relaxed. Let me throw another stat your way. On average, the time spent on TikTok is 23 hours and 28 minutes weekly. The longer you’re on the app, clicking and liking all the videos, the more information about you, your likes, your location, etc., is being gathered and sold. We’re just opening up the front doors of our homes to strangers.

ST: You hammered it home to me and my family about social media platforms owning your pictures, videos, etc., when my oldest child’s Instagram was hacked. Are scammers able to do the same thing with TikTok accounts?

DJS: Oh, yes. Any of them can be hacked, hijacked, catfished, or cloned easily. Anything with a username and password—a login capability—is not secure. Most of us use passwords that mean something to us, right? No app with a username and password is entirely secure. So, don’t think TikTok is difficult. It’s really not.

Tik Tok Ban

ST: Since we’re talking about how social media companies are gleaning information, is there a legitimate concern regarding national security and TikTok, or is that argument nothing more than political grandstanding? Now, I’m going to say you’ve basically answered this question, and yes, there’s a legitimate concern.

DJS: I’d 100% agree with you. And I would go even further and say it would be the same if TikTok were based in Canada or if TikTok was in the US. Why? Because it’s not who runs the social media platform; it’s the fact that once they sell the data to data aggregators, there’s no control over who buys it. So you have no idea, at that point, who is compiling the data on literally millions and millions of users and their daily habits. And that’s a national security problem for us and every nation on the planet.

Like I said, TikTok is today, but what’s next? If they’re collecting this much data from us right now, what’s the next one going to collect? Think about this: most of the social media out there, not including Facebook, Instagram, and X, is not based in the United States. They’re based where there aren’t a lot of rules and regulations on consumer protection.

ST: I remember when TikTok first started becoming popular, our active-duty military were banned from using it and highly encouraged not to let family members use it. The military has since relaxed that stance, and quite frankly, after this conversation, I have no clue why. But they have.

DJS: Yes, about a month ago, the list of countries and entities banning TikTok was maybe three names long. And now, in a matter of a few short weeks, the list has grown considerably. As well as currently, the US is encouraging all federal employees to delete it from all federal devices. But remember, TikTok is here now, but it’s meant and designed to be fleeting. So we can’t drop our guard at any time now or in the future. TikTok is not the bad guy. TikTok is the current bad guy.

ST: All right. We’re now all terrified, and anybody who has TikTok is now deleting it, and I say that only half-jokingly, which brings me to my next question. When you delete the app, is there any remaining spyware, or any way they can continue to gather information from your device(s)?

DJS: This is about the number one question I get after teaching this class, and I love it because, on the one hand, I’m going to tell you something that will make you feel good, and on the other, I’ll let you know something that will make you want to skip dinner. Go into the terms of service of any of these [social media apps] and see what it takes to actually cancel it. Most of them hold onto your data for a very long time. Their rationale is that if a user returns, everything is still there. However, supposedly, they eventually get rid of it.

You can delete TikTok right now, and there’s not necessarily anything “leftover” from it, per se. Now, if you clicked on any other links that took you outside the platform, then you probably have some kind of tracking or malware software on your device(s). Now, it’s tough to put that stuff on an iPhone, slightly easier on an Android, but it’s stupidly easy to do that on a PC, so you’d definitely want to take those to someone who knows how to check for that kind of thing and clean your device(s).

Back to the question. So, let’s say you delete TikTok. It immediately stops the flow of information. Now, many of these platforms have a 30, 60, or 90-day period where it’s still considered active and tracking everything I read above [from TikTok’s terms of service]. After that, do they really stop? That question was asked of a TikTok representative from the US who appeared before Congress, and it was never entirely answered. So maybe they do, and maybe they don’t.

ST: To close this out, and this is strictly your opinion, what do you think the purpose of TikTok really is?

DJS: The outward purpose is obviously making a lot of money, and they do. All of them do. However, I’m a bit cynical as an old salty detective and SWAT guy. And when I first got into this world, I wondered, if they’re collecting all of this data, why? If it’s all about the money, why collect the data? It didn’t make any sense until I realized, what’s the best way to know something about somebody you might have ulterior motives for?

And the unfortunate answer is to collect as much information about the citizenry as possible. What’s the best way to do that? You make them feel comfortable. You give them things they can laugh at. Give them something that makes them drop their guard. And then they’ll tell you anything you want to know. If you think about it, it’s the old interview and interrogation skills we used to learn in detective school. How do you get someone to tell you anything? You’re kind. Warm. You don’t accuse or act ugly. You open the door and make them feel they’re in a place where they can tell you anything. And once they start, just be quiet. Let them keep talking until they stop.

And I think that’s where we are right now with social media. We’re talking until someone makes us stop, and until we do, so many data points are coming into these apps all the time. Every move you make is being tracked. If someone has an ulterior motive against a group of people, this is the best way to understand their habits, their movements, where they’re strong, and where they’re weak.

Pause Social Media; Take a break from social media

ST: And that is bone-chilling.

DJS: It should be. You know, I have a rule in my household for my kids. I teach them about social media, I show them my presentations, and when I teach locally, they come and listen. And I tell them the ugly stories all to bring home the point that social media is a dangerous place to play around, especially for the younger ages and the older ages.

If you have friends on your social media you don’t know except for inside of social media, I’d drop them. Ask yourself this: If you have a bunch of people on your social media you don’t know [in real life], why do they care about you? Because maybe they aren’t real. And maybe they have an ulterior motive.

ST: Whew, that was heavier than I anticipated. But thank you for all of that information. You’ve talked about this class you teach, and you actually released it as a podcast recently. Where can any interested readers listen to it?

DJS: My podcast is Offthebeat with DJ Seals: A Public Safety Podcast and the picture is me in a suit with a red bowtie. I say that because there are other podcasts named Off the Beat. The episode is titled Wolves Among Sheep: The Realities of Social Media, and it’s on every major platform.

ST: DJ, as always, it’s been quite educational talking with you today.

Check out the podcast episode here.

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