Children and teens today live much of their lives online, which makes them prime targets for online scams. Cyber fraud is growing faster among victims aged 20 and under than any other age group, according to data from the Internet Crime Center. Scams that target children include everything from fake scholarships and contests to online shopping fraud and extortion. These crimes can cause emotional anguish, financial losses and even identity theft. Here are 11 common online scams to watch for and what you can do to protect your child.
1. Online Shopping Scams
Children or teens may fall for ads or messages promising products for low prices, such as a $25 iPad. After providing payment information, they never receive the purchased product. Not only are they out the money, but their payment information and other personal data may be stolen and used by thieves.
2. Fake Contests
Kids may be encouraged to enter a fraudulent contest that requires paying a fee. They may also be told that they've won a contest and asked to share personal information or pay money to claim their prize, which never arrives.
3. Online Quizzes
Seemingly harmless quizzes may be used to harvest children's personal data by asking for information such as birthdays, pets' names, street names, favorite shows or best friends. Such information is often used as passwords or answers to security questions, so thieves can use it to get into your child's accounts.
4. Talent Scouting Scams
A flattering message or tempting ad might convince a child to pay an entry fee to join a bogus talent contest or casting call. In addition to your child's money, scammers may also steal their personal information or end up with photos or videos of your child.
5. Pop-Up Scams
Young children may not understand that clicking on a pop-up could lead to trouble. Following a link could download malware or spyware onto your computer or device, capturing keystrokes and personal information such as passwords or credit card numbers.
6. Money Transfer Scams
Does your child or teen have a cash app, like Venmo, on their phone? Scammers send users money, then text to claim the money was sent in error and ask the recipient to send it back. Only after sending the money does your child find out the original payment didn't go through.
7. Online Gaming Scams
As children befriend other players online, they can be persuaded to share personal information such as names, addresses and account passwords. Promises of free in-game currency, "skins" or other desirable gaming extras can persuade children to share payment information or click on links that lead to malware or spyware downloads.
8. Financial Aid Scams
Thieves may recruit teens to apply for bogus college scholarships, grants or financial aid by paying an upfront application fee. They may say the teen has won a financial award but must pay to claim it.
Some scammers ask for bank or credit card information to verify eligibility and then take money from the account. Others charge a "processing fee" to help students apply for financial aid and scholarships. They gather personal financial information about students and their parents in the process, or may ask for the student's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) account information and password, giving them access to sensitive financial data.
Scammers may even send teens checks purporting to be grant or scholarship funds. The child is asked to send back a part of the money to pay taxes or fees. By the time the check bounces, the teen has already paid the money.
9. Phishing Texts
Phony text messages claiming to be from a legitimate account or website, such as a social media or gaming site, can create a sense of urgency. These messages typically ask children to confirm their password, user data or payment card information or contain links that download spyware onto the user's phone.
10. "Free" Service Scams
Young people may sign up for services that claim to be free but actually charge recurring subscription fees. For example, your child might claim an offer for free smartphone ringtones without realizing there's a monthly cost.
11. Sextortion Scams
Extortionists pressure minors to share explicit images or videos of themselves. Typically, they pose as a person the same age who wants to start a relationship or is offering something free in exchange. The scammer may claim to already have an incriminating photo or video, or may record the victim without their knowledge. The scammer then threatens to share the images online unless they provide payment.
How to Protect Your Child
Online scams can lead to synthetic identity fraud. Crooks combine a victim's personal data with phony data to build a new identity that they use to apply for credit, loans or government benefits. Child identity theft, which often isn't discovered until the child is old enough to apply for credit, affects an estimated one in 50 U.S. children.
To help safeguard your child from online scams:
- Talk about the risks of online scams and what to watch out for.
- Tell them only to shop on trusted sites.
- Remind them not to click links in emails, texts or pop-ups. If the message appears to come from a known site, they should visit the site directly instead.
- Remind them never to share their own or a family member's personal information online, including:
- Their real name (have them create usernames instead)
- Birth date
- Social Security number
- Phone numbers
- Payment card or bank account numbers
- Teach your child not to share passwords, even with friends they know in real life. It could be misused or stolen once it's out of their hands.
- Don't give children your payment card information or save the information to accounts they access.
- Use built-in browser pop-up blocker options and pop-up browser extensions to minimize risks of malicious pop-ups.
- Purchase a password manager family plan to create and manage unique passwords for each account you and your family use.
- Check your child's credit report. You can check a minor's credit report with each of the three consumer credit bureaus— Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Children generally don't have credit reports; if you find one, look for evidence of fraud, such as accounts in your child's name that you didn't open.
- Freeze your child's credit reports. Ask each credit bureau to create and then freeze a credit report for your child. While it won't prevent identity theft, a credit freeze prevents companies from viewing the credit report, foiling fraudsters from opening accounts in your child's name. Just lift the credit freeze when your child is ready to apply for credit.
If your child falls victim to an online scam, report it to the FTC.
Stay Safe Online
A few other protective measures can safeguard your child online. Experian's free personal privacy scan can reveal if your child's data has been exposed online, with the option to upgrade to recurring scans and have data automatically removed. You can also get a free scan to see if your child's Social Security number, email or phone number is on the dark web. Want even greater peace of mind? Experian offers identity theft protection plans for your whole family.