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A viral scare involving threatening phone messages and a magnified image of a sculpture resembling a bird-girl creature surfaced in Yellowstone County this week.

A 12-year-old in Lockwood received one such message Monday night at about 11 p.m., and their parents reported it, according to the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office in a Facebook post Tuesday morning called the messaging in the "Momo Challenge" "garbage."

The “Momo Challenge” is described in some places as a social media game or a viral scare. It is a combination of threatening messages and images sent to youth along with challenges to complete dangerous acts, according to the sheriff's office post, which states the purported goal is a meeting with the bird-like creature whose image accompanies some of the messages.

Those encouraged acts can include suicide or violence, the sheriff's office stated in its post. The "Momo Challenge" was described by the law enforcement agency as a form of "online intimidation and bullying."

A September Washington Post article stated there were no suicides with confirmed connections to the “Momo Challenge,” although possible connections were being investigated in the deaths of three different children in Argentina, Colombia and India.

"None of these circumstantial reports tying the game to suicides have been proved," according to the article.

A key action in stopping any "Momo Challenge" messages is blocking the phone number or account sending the messages.

Parents should be aware of their children’s activity online and on phones, block unknown numbers and change email passwords frequently, the sheriff’s office advised.

Contact for the “Momo Challenge” is commonly made through the free WhatsApp messaging application and can involve threats or gruesome images in order to intimidate people into recording themselves doing dangerous things.

The “Momo Challenge” has also been suspected as a strategy for both stealing personal information and implanting malware on electronic devices, according to a blog post written in August 2018 by Anne Collier, the executive director of the Net Safety Collaborative nonprofit organization.

Collier has served on the Facebook Safety Advisory Board since 2009, co-chaired the Online Safety and Technology Working Group during the Obama administration and also operates netfamilynews.org, a blog for adults and parents that is dedicated to tracking youth tech and social media trends.

In her blog post Collier described how people who have encountered the "Momo Challenge" are encouraged to message a phone number for predictions about their future. That can lead to threats of a curse, graphic images and challenges to complete harmful tasks.

The “Momo Challenge” resurfacing in central Montana is “very curious,” Collier said by phone Tuesday afternoon.

Collier said she believed the “Momo Challenge” peaked sometime in summer 2018 and said it has been seen internationally, particularly in Latin America.

“These things never die totally, I don’t think,” she said. Similar messaging trends that become associated with self-harm have also surfaced in recent years, Collier said.

Something like the “Momo Challenge” takes advantage of where children are developmentally, she said.

“It’s like the old-fashioned dare," she said. "‘I dare you to do this,’ and that has appeal with young people who developmentally are doing their risk assessment. They’re taking risks and assessing the risk levels, and that’s kind of their job as they separate from us.”

Receiving threatening messages can make people feel targeted, but that level of intention is not likely, she said. Technology can facilitate mass messaging, including with the "Momo Challenge," which increases the potential that contact is random, Collier said. The same technology also makes it extremely difficult to trace the origin of the messages.

The disturbing image accompanying the messages can also obscure the reality of the situation. “'Momo isn’t a thing. It’s some troll or somebody” messaging people, she said.

The image, showing a distorted face with stringy black hair, bulging eyes, flared nostrils, and an angular, toothless smile, is believed to have been taken from a sculpture combining the features of a bird and woman that was created by a Japanese special effects company called Link Factory.

Collier said it’s OK to report any related activity to police, and she encouraged parents to “cut through the fear” and communicate with their children. “See what they’ve heard with just honest curiosity. Respect their intelligence and just say ‘Hey, if you ever get a creepy thing like this, you know not to reply. And if it scares you in any way, I’m here for you.’”

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Night Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.