Stop scammers from targeting your teens

They’ve got their own cell phones, computers, websites, webcams and social networking accounts, and many of them can outsmart their teachers and parents when it comes to the internet and computers. They’ve got tech savvy — but even today’s younger generations aren’t immune to fraud.

Sexual predators and cyber-bullies aren’t the only threats children and teens face online. Scammers will target anyone willing to trust them. The result? Children and teens can unknowingly expose their families to identify theft and computer viruses, and they can even be defrauded of their cash.

So what’s the best protection? As with any kind of fraud, your best bet is to stay one step ahead of the con artists by being aware of the risks and taking steps to avoid them.

Scams targeting children and teens

Anyone using the internet can be targeted for common schemes like phishing scams and get-rich-quick schemes. However, according to Scambusters.org, there are several scams aimed directly at children and teens, including:

Too-good-to-be-true deals. Victims see an item they want for sale online — like the latest electronic gadgets — for a price they can’t pass up. Most kids couldn’t normally afford these items, so these steep discounts are especially appealing. However, they send the money but don’t receive the promised item.

People selling items are also targeted — a scammer posing as a legitimate person or company cons them into shipping items before payment is received (or the cheque clears).

Talent scams. These ads and emails seem like a dream come true for aspiring stars. Victims are invited to take a screen test, join a modelling agency or be part of a sports school. There’s often a charge or hidden fee for those supposedly “free” consultations.

Predators can also pretend to be talent scouts or agents and ask teens to do questionable things in front of their webcams as a way to “get into the business”.

Fake awards. This scam is similar to those “you’ve won the lottery” schemes — only this one purports to be a reward or prize based on achievement. The catch? A big up-front fee for awards which are never delivered.

Scholarship scams. Who doesn’t want money for college or university? These scams charge students for out of date lists, and those “guarantees” of scholarship money never materialize.

Bogus competitions. Victims can be lured into giving out personal information about themselves or their families under the guise of participating in an online competition or survey. Children and teens are just as susceptible as adults to phishing scams and fake registrations.

Running anti-virus software and a firewall are a must, but there are additional ways parents, grandparents and those who care for children can promote safe internet use:

1. Learn the risks

Imagine teaching your teen how to drive when you don’t know the rules of the road. Parents have to stay a step ahead of their children to provide valuable guidance — but the roles are often reversed when it comes to the internet and today’s technology.

Experts recommend that the first thing you should do is educate yourself about the potential dangers and common scams. Learn the risks involved with the software and applications your children use — like social networking sites, music downloading services and email (for a start).

Additionally, you should know your rights as a parent. For instance, your consent is required before your children under a certain age can give out any information. OnGuard Online (maintained by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission) notes that you have the right to request that a website delete any information it has about your child. If you’ve given permission for a website to collect personal information, you have the right to withdraw it.

2. Talk it over

Once you’re armed with the right information (and the right vocabulary), it’s time to sit down and start a conversation. What you tell your children will depend on their ages, but experts recommend making sure your children and teens understand:

– What personal information is, why it’s important to protect it and how to safe-guard it online. Just as a child shouldn’t give out their phone number and address to a stranger in person, they shouldn’t do it on the internet either.

– What is or isn’t safe to click on. (Like questionable links in emails, pop-up windows and downloads).

– What information is public and what is private, and how they can control privacy settings. Help them understand the consequences of what they post online — like getting in trouble at school or losing a job.

– How to handle (or avoid) communications with strangers. Teens rely heavily on email, forums, chatting, texting and social networks as part of their social life — but knowing how to use a software application is different from understanding the social ramifications. Some questions you might want to consider are what information it’s “okay” to share online (status updates, photos, etc), who it’s appropriate to add as a “friend” and how to spot fraudsters.

– What scams are out there and how to recognize them. (For example, are the offers too good to be true? Do they ask for money upfront?) Children may be too young to identify a scam, but they should be aware that there are people out there who lie and it’s okay to talk to an adult when they have questions.

– How to verify information they find online using reputable sources, and how to tell if a website or email is part of a scam.

– What to do if they see something inappropriate like hate speech or a scam, and what to do if they think they’ve given away information they shouldn’t have.

While it doesn’t necessarily pertain to fraud, there are a number of other issues in the grey area of online ethics that should also be discussed — like privacy rules, hate speech, bullying, misrepresenting oneself, illegal downloading and violating copyright laws (or plagiarism). Violating certain rules can get them in trouble at school — or with the law.

3. Set limits

Part of your ongoing conversation about internet safety should involve laying some ground rules. What those rules are will depend on the age and maturity of the children and teens involved as well as your comfort level. Experts recommend making a list as a family and coming up with a code of conduct that everyone can follow. Some ideas you can consider include:

– Keeping the computer in a common area (rather than the child’s room) where use can be supervised.

– Agreeing on the amount of time and purposes for computer use (i.e. no more than one hour per day for non-schoolwork related use).

– Requiring a parent’s approval for certain purposes — like downloading software or files, joining a social networking site or online community and responding to communications from people the parents don’t know. Purchasing or selling items should be done with the assistance of parents.

– Determining what privacy and security settings are used, and stick to them.

– Limiting access by using parental controls, web-monitoring software or filtering applications. You can even install kid-friendly browsers with built-in controls. (See GetNetWise for a list of tools and applications you can try).

In addition, let your children and teens know you’re watching what they read online — and check up on them. Visit the online places they go and learn how they work and what the privacy policies are (if you don’t know, ask).

The goal isn’t to create a set of carved-in-stone rules and restrictions. Rather, the focus should be on safe use for the whole family and limiting the access to con artists and predators. Ideally, you want to keep the lines of communication open and make sure your children and teens feel comfortable coming to you with any problems or admitting any mistakes.

Resources for parents

Don’t feel you have to “go it alone”. Here are some places to look for advice and educational tools:

Web Aware. This educational campaign from the Media Awareness Network outlines the risks children and teens face online and provides safety tips based on age group.

i-SAFE.org. This non-profit focuses on internet safety education, and even has an online training tool for teens. Its awareness campaigns also work with parents and community members to help promote safe internet usage.

Safe Canada: Internet Safety has a list of resources and articles that cover all areas of internet safety and security.

Stay Safe Online. Website of the National Cyber Security Alliance has a section called Protect Your Children, which offers advice about safety and security, filtering tools and monitoring your children’s internet use. The Alliance will be launching a section for university and college students later this year.

Kids’ Internet Safety Alliance. KINSA offers visual resources like videos and a comic book to help parents and kids become aware of the risks online.

Depending on where you live, media awareness is part of the school curriculum, so don’t be shy about asking teachers and librarians for help too.

Where to get help

– In Canada, you can report internet fraud to the RCMP’s Reporting Economic Crime Online (RECOL) at http://www.recol.ca, or call their toll-free phone line at 1-888-495-8501. You can also report fraud to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre (Phonebusters) at 1-888-495-8501 (see www.phonebusters.com for complete contact information).

– In the U.S., contact the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint or 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357) to report online fraud.

– If you come across sexually exploitative materials involving minors, report it online at Cybertip.ca.

– Cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking should be reported to the local police and to the school or schools involved (if necessary).

Sources:

OnGuard Online: Kids’ Privacy

Scambusters.org: Kids’ Scams

Houston Better Business Bureau

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Justin Horrocks

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