3.1 Data Theft?

Data theft occurs when a fraudster steals identifying information--names, addresses, financial data--from an unsuspecting victim and sells the information or uses it for personal gain. Keyloggers can skim Web users' e-mail addresses and passwords by using software that surreptitiously captures the keystrokes they type, for example. Phishing scams use bogus e-mails and Web sites that seem legitimate but are actually designed to trick users into revealing personal and financial information. Computer criminals can then use the data to spy on or blackmail users, hijack their online accounts (including bank accounts), spread rumors, or operate under the victim's identity.

Although minors don't risk as much financial loss as adults, they are in danger of exposure to interlopers aiming to hijack or share their online identity. Children are especially vulnerable because they're often unable to identify and report data-snatching malware, and because they tend to be less cautious about sharing sensitive information with strangers and friends.


  • Long, hard-to-guess passwords that include a mix of numbers, letters, and characters
  • Do not disclose passwords to friends and strangers
  • Know how to identify malicious software

3.2 Malware

Malicious software--or malware--is the umbrella term for unsolicited software intended to annoy, destroy, or exploit. The category includes malicious adware, viruses, keylogging software, and backdoor Trojan programs, which allow attackers unauthorized access to and control over a user's computer. Malicious software often loads through infected links and downloads when users click on ads or buttons designed to launch the programs. The links and buttons may be presented to an intended victim via phishing e-mail or on a malicious Web site. Malware can sometimes load invisibly and, in a worst-case scenario, allow others to control your computer. It's a good idea to become familiar with security terms and what danger each security threat poses.

Kids often value "free" over "safe". Young surfers involved in link-sharing and file-sharing among peers are at higher risk of downloading infected programs. Malware distributors know kids seek out free software, music, and "cracks" (serial numbers) for pirating commercial games; they also know these same kids often trust links and e-mail attachments far more than they should.


  • Teach kids to be extremely cautious when opening downloads or links from friends and strangers
  • Never click ads or answer unsolicited e-mails
  • Teach kids to refrain from automatically clicking "yes" buttons anywhere on the screen--read all text carefully
  • Download legitimate software only, and only from trusted sites. Software is available that can help spot the bogus software offers
  • Kids should immediately report anything suspicious to an adult

3.3 Inappropriate Content

What's inappropriate for a minor? That's largely a matter of common sense and, depending on the age of their child, varies from parent to parent. Some countries ban adult content for all users, while in the U.S. school libraries receiving federal funds are obliged to block online access to such content.

Risk and defense
Even if a minor isn't looking for adult or violent material online, it's sometimes easy to stumble across it simply by following search-engine or instant-message links.
Scammers, meanwhile, often use pornographic pop-ups to lure users into clicking links that load malicious software. Parents often rely on content-blocking and filtering software to limit what kids can see, but be forewarned that older kids with computer skills are often adept at working around such controls.

3.4 Cyberbullying

It's frightening and hurtful when bullies taunt and deride their peers at the schoolyard. It can be even more damaging when it happens online. Cyberbullying includes threats, gossip, and insults that are spread via e-mail and IM, broadcast on social networking sites, planted in forums, and distributed through community-oriented online games.

Risk and defense
Sadly, there's no easy way to protect children from determined bullies, online or offline. The best defense is early detection (does your child become anxious when going online or answering the cell phone?) and knowing your options. For example, Roland Park Country School, a K-12 school for girls in Baltimore, cites examples of cyberbullying ("A girl gets e-mail every day after school from an anonymous person who calls her the fattest, stupidest, ugliest girl who ever lived") and offers good advice on what to do if the harassment escalates. Specific tips also are available through the About.com Web portal.

Defense summary

  • Emphasize that kids should talk to an adult if they become victims of bullying
  • Save the evidence
  • Report incidents to your Internet service provider, e-mail provider, or Web site host. If the incidents begin occurring offline, report the encounters to the bully's parents or to school officials

3.5 Predators

Every parent's worst Web nightmare, online predators are most commonly adults who use various techniques to establish a close relationship with young Web users.

Predators typically pose as young people and take their time befriending minors, gathering personal information and other clues in the virtual world so they can lure, blackmail, abuse or kidnap their targets in the real world.

Young "netizens" become susceptible to predators when they chat online with strangers and make photos and personal details publicly accessible. Predators use clues about their vulnerabilities and whereabouts to get emotionally and physically close.

Numerous organizations provide tips for keeping kids aware of and away from suspicious online strangers. Guidelines include staying private online and using parental control software. Just as important, parents should discuss the tactics and dangers posed by online predators openly and honestly with kids and teens.