Teach Your Kids About Online Scams

From the Department of an Ounce of Prevention comes this friendly reminder to have “the conversation” with your kids. No, not the one about the birds and the bees – the one about the scum and the scams.

Any child old enough to hold an electronic device is old enough to learn the basics of cyber self-defense. Ignorance may be bliss but knowledge is power so go ahead and begin training your young early about the unseen perils that abound online.

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The news that some cyber criminals target vulnerable young children should come as no surprise. How effective they can be might just shock you, though.

For example, social media giant Facebook conned children into racking up big fees on their parents’ credit cards, which were required to set up a minor’s account. This illegal and unethical activity went on for years and has prompted a class-action lawsuit. Internal documents revealed the depth of Mark Zuckerberg’s corporate conspiracy to defraud their own users:

“Facebook encouraged game developers to let children spend money without their parents’ permission – something the social media giant called ‘friendly fraud’ – in an effort to maximize revenues, according to a document detailing the company’s game strategy.”

Worse, Facebook ignored its own employees who raised the alarm over this deplorable money-grubbing swindle. One 15-year-old was charged $6,500 from about two weeks of game-playing. Facebook’s refusal to give back the money has prompted angry parents to resort to legal means for satisfaction.

Some young gamers claimed they had no idea that “play money” was actually “real money.” They also reported that many games promoted on Facebook did not offer notifications that their gaming activities would result in credit card charges.

Teach your children that there is a difference between Monopoly money and legal tender. If your kid is too young to distinguish between funny money and the real thing, unsupervised computer use is probably not the best way to go.

Educate yourself about trending scams so you can pass that knowledge on to your offspring. Then, talk to your kids and ask them what they do online. What games do they play and from what platform? Do they use dating apps? Are they into Twitter, Kik, Instagram, Facebook? If your children are using apps you don’t know, get them to demonstrate them for you.

Remember that you are the adult in this conversation and what you say goes. If your child’s online activities make you uncomfortable, exercise your parental power and say so. You may need to define some cyber boundaries not to be crossed by your tadpoles.

Responsible, loving parents want to protect their children. “Never talk to strangers,” is one Golden Rule for youth. The same applies online. Teach your children to be wary of “friends” they have never met in person. That “cute girl” might be, in reality, a 40-year-old man trolling for opportunity.

Likewise, tell your kids not to hand over personal information to strangers on the internet. Emphasize how important it is not to share Social Security numbers, street addresses, phone numbers, and financial information with unknowns.

The FTC runs a Complaint Assistant service for anyone who suspects online fraud has been committed and is a valuable resource for cyber safety.

One very common scam to be aware of is the free trial offer. The fine print that goes along with the lure of a free one-month trial of some awesome product or service might just mention that after the trial period, you are obliged to pay a monthly fee for the product – forever.

Other common online scams include:

  • Fake WiFi hotspots
  • Social media or email messages that say you’re a winner of an expensive prize (or should enter a contest to win a valuable prize)
  • Fake pop-ups that warn the user of alleged viruses and malware
  • Bogus pop-ups that look like real virus alerts are especially dangerous because they often invite the user to click on a download link which, ironically, infects that computer with a virus. (Clever, eh?)

Internet scams are so widespread that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a consumer information web page devoted to them. A quick search on the keyword “children” produced links to many useful articles such as the four shown below:

International collaboration to protect children’s privacy

Parental Advisory: Dating Apps

Company collected kids’ info without permission

If your kids have electronic devices, read this

The FTC enforces the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which “requires websites and online services to obtain consent from parents before collecting personal information from kids younger than 13.”

You can also teach your kids some of the warning signs that herald a scam artist:

  1. Messages loaded with grammatical and spelling errors that often “read foreign” (in other words, the text would “sound foreign” if spoken aloud) which is a big red flag, even if the sender says they are your best buddy – or deposed African royalty.
  2. Speaking of offers from strangers who pretend to be friends, one of the biggest scams going emails you the exciting news that an unknown “foreign prince” wants to give you oodles of money. All you have to do to share a cut of the poor little rich man’s thousands of dollars is to fork over a hefty wiring fee (say, $150) to initiate an electronic funds transfer. Don’t even go there. Go to the FTC complaint web page instead.
  3. Good con artists prey on their victims’ emotions. Financial stress, loneliness, and frustration may trigger requests from strangers for personal information that can be used for identity theft.
  4. Talent scouts for kids may actually be scammers. Be leery of invitations for your child to join an acting or modeling agency or take a screen test, especially if you must pay the prospective employer money to play this (bogus) game.
  5. Scholarship scams are similar to talent search scams but target students. No legitimate academic awards program demands money up-front to go forward with the application process.

There is a fine line between teaching your kids how to protect themselves online by being aware and suspicious of odd behavior and turning them into small, paranoid people.

It bears repeating that paranoia is an irrational fear and there is nothing crazy about the very real threat that cyber predators pose.

With that in mind, talk early and often with your kids about the dos and don’ts on sharing information with strangers…online as well as offline. That ounce of prevention could pay off in spades.