How help your teens avoid online scams

Younger generations are assumed to be more tech-savvy than their elders. They’re digital natives, after all. But while tweens and teens may know their way around a Discord chat, nuanced emoji slang and finsta etiquette, that doesn’t mean they’re ready for the real-world dangers lurking online.

Scammers are targeting teenagers with everything from low-level phishing attempts to devastating blackmail scams.

The number of teens being scammed is low compared with other age groups, in part because they don’t have the kind of money that would make targeting them as lucrative. According to the Federal Trade Commission, which tracks fraud, only 5 percent of reported scams in the United States involved people 19 years old or younger. The median loss for their scams was also lower than other groups in 2022, at just $300 compared with $1,750 for people 80 and up.

“They don’t have a lot of assets. The one thing these teens have that’s super valuable to scammers are their accounts,” says Girard Kelly, head of privacy at Common Sense Media. “Scammers want access to their social network, so they can send emails from that account … and get to the parents of the teen, the teachers or other family members.”

Even if the risk is lower, their inexperience can make them an easy mark, and teaching teens the skills to defend themselves now could benefit them later in life. Here’s how to identify some of the common scams your children might run into, and talk to them before they encounter them.

The nonstop scam economy is costing us more than just money

Know where they’re most at risk

Teens don’t use technology the same way adults do, so their interactions with scammers could happen in different mediums. While you’re answering calls from unknown numbers, they’re getting romance scams in their Instagram DMs. The scams themselves have also changed over the years, and spotting one is harder.

“There’s no more Nigerian Prince asking for money, no more badly spelled emails and bad logos,” Kelly says. “That’s not the norm, it’s much more sophisticated now.”

According to the FTC, the most common scam types targeting teens in 2023 are online shopping, business impostor and job scams. Remember, they’re often saving and spending their own money for the first time. Walk them through vetting sellers they find in searches, on social media or on sites such as Amazon. Tell them how to confirm the source of an official-sounding email, text or DM by contacting senders independently though another method.

Talk to them, again and again

Yes, yet another serious topic to talk to your teen about alongside sex, drugs and social media. Sometimes it feels like there aren’t enough car rides in the world to fit them all in, but this talk can be quick and painless.

If teens know what the current scams are, they won’t be caught off guard when it happens to them. Regularly tell them the latest things you’ve heard about on the news or from other parents and caregivers, and let them know when you’ve been targeted by scams or when someone else in the family has fallen for one. Encourage them to read the news or follow creators online who talk about crime and fraud. Plant the seeds for what a scam looks like, and they’ll be more likely to spot the red flags.

The most important thing is to let kids know that they can come to you without fear of you getting angry or punishing them if they fall victim to a scam. Tell them about a time it happened to you.

Explain the real stranger danger

As soon a child is old enough to play video games, you should brief them on how to deal with strangers online. Tell them to never assume someone is who they say they are online, whether it’s in a Discord group or video game chat. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has lessons and tip sheets for adults and kids of all ages on navigating online interactions with people you don’t know.

Break their hearts a little

They did not win an unexpected prize, they will not make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for forwarding a text chain, and they are not getting a great $10 deal on authentic Jordans. As with older targets, younger internet users are falling for promises of riches and winnings. Give them a heads up about how anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.

It’s especially important to talk about romance scams, and what officials call financial extortion, with your kids. People posing as attractive, interested and age-appropriate singles will message teens hoping to get them to turn over money, information or private images they can then use for blackmail. The criminals depend on kids feeling too embarrassed to ask an adult for help.

If you’re worried about your teens’ falling for scams or their information already being out there, you can go ahead and freeze their credit. Even younger children are targets for identity theft. Here are preventive steps you can take to protect them now, starting by contacting the big three credit agencies.

Proper security will help protect your teen in case they do fall prey to cybercriminals. If you can, pay for a password management tool such as 1Password to help them protect accounts. Walk them through turning on two-factor authentication for all their email, financial and social media accounts, and even the most basic tips you may assume they already know and learned in school: Don’t share passwords with friends, don’t let other people access your devices, don’t share personal information like your address. Ask your school whether they have a digital skills curriculum and what it covers.

Give them tools to solve it on their own

Teenagers may not want to come to their parents and tell them they’ve been scammed. There’s a fear of getting in trouble, general resistance to grown ups saying “I told you so,” and embarrassment.

In addition to making sure the lines of communication are open, give them some resources they can use on their own. The scams subreddit is a good place to see what the latest trends are, or even pose an anonymous question to a group of strangers. AARP might seem like a weird place to send kids, but they have a fraud hotline staffed by real people anyone can call Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern time. If they’re not sure whether something is a scam or want to know what they should do, they can call the Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. They can also try taking our scam quiz to test their skills.

Scams often prey on emotions, like being excited about winning something or terrified about losing money or having sensitive photos exposed. Everyone, from tweens to seniors, needs to stop, breathe and proceed with caution.

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