How to Talk to Your Teens About Online Scams

When using the internet, kids and teens can be lured into scams that cost them money, their identity, or their reputation. Read our guide for tips and resources to promote online safety.

Young Woman Using Smart Phone
Photo: Getty

Young people are online more than ever before. And while it may seem like sitting at the computer would be a much safer activity than playing in the street or riding dirt bikes, that's not necessarily the case. The internet comes with plenty of potential threats, ranging from cyberbullying to online scams, and parents need to be vigilant about keeping their kids protected.

Read on for some basic tips on how to talk to your teens about online scams. These tricky frauds could potentially cost them money, their reputation, or worse—so it's best to raise awareness as soon as they start using the internet.

Scams Against Kids and Teens Are on the Rise

Online background check service Social Catfish published a 2021 study on internet scams in America, which was partly compiled with data from the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They found an alarming rise in the number of scams involving kids and teen—specifically, an increase of 156 percent from 2017 to 2020. That's even bigger than the growth percentage for elderly individuals, which falls at 112 percent.

It's no secret that kids today are comfortable on the internet; but it's possible they've become a bit too comfortable—and too trusting as well. "Teens and young adults may be more trusting than older adults, and as a result, may be more likely to fall for scams," says David Wurst, founder of WebCitz, a full-service development, cybersecurity, and digital marketing agency. "Whether through ignorance or inexperience, it seems clear that not only are teens and young adults at a greater risk for becoming cybercrime victims, but they may also have more difficulty recovering from the crime."

Types of Online Scams

Although there are endless iterations of online scams targeting teens, many involve social media in some way, and they're used to collect personal information for identity theft, says Judith Bitterli, McAfee's Senior Vice President of Consumer Monetizations. Often, teens will be lured by bogus auctions for luxury goods, scholarships and job offer scams, and promises of free items such as cell phones, she says.

And for parents, it all starts with awareness, says Wurst. "It's important for parents to be aware of the most common types of scams targeting young people, so that they can help their kids avoid them," he says. Below, we've listed four common types of online scams, and what parents need to know to keep their teens safe online.

1. Financial/Banking Scams

Kids can be scammed through peer-to-peer (P2P) cash apps, such as Venmo or Zelle, says Bitterli. "Because cash apps require users to link to a personal bank account directly, scammers can easily sell you goods or befriend you to send money only to delete their accounts and disappear."

Along those lines, Bitterli adds that downloadable gaming apps can contain scams that offer free in-game currency, such as Fornite Vbucks. "By clicking on a link and entering a username and password, gamers are promised free currency—only it never shows up in their account. While the debate continues over how to improve both Apple and Google Play's app security standards, for now, anyone downloading an app is at risk to some degree."

2. Phishing

Phishing is a fraudulent practice that involves sending emails to a particular recipient with the goal of tricking them into providing personal or bank account information, which can then be used for identity theft purposes. Today's phishing scams are virtually unrecognizable, with scammers getting more advanced at copying legitimate companies' logos, fonts, and tone of voice. Here are some tips for recognizing phishing attempts.

Demanding urgent action. In the email, you may see verbiage like "respond now!" or "limited time only!"

Bad grammar and spelling mistakes. Real emails sent from legitimate companies are typically run through spell checking software to avoid mistakes.

Non-specific greeting. Because phishing emails don't have your actual name, they may sometimes begin with odd greetings like "Dear Sir or Ms."

Bizarre return email address. This is one the easiest ways to spot a scam. Always check that the return address on an email is real, and will return to the company from which it was sent.

Content that sounds too good to be true. Designer handbags at half price? Modeling contracts with no interview required? Yep, these are probably scams. The old adage holds true today more than ever: if something seems too good to be true, it likely is.

3. Romance scams

Some of the most popular scams can be found in fraudulent dating apps, says Bitterli. "According to the FTC, consumers reported a record $304 million lost to romance scams in 2020, a number that has spiked since the pandemic. While some scams look like legit dating apps, others surface in hangout apps such as Clubhouse, Google Hangouts, or seemingly harmless apps like Words with Friends."

4. Downloading Malware

Malware is something that tricks you into downloading unfavorable software onto your computer. According to the Australian website, "Malware scams work by installing software on your computer that allows scammers to access your files or watch what you are doing on your computer. Scammers use this information to steal your personal details and commit fraudulent activities."

How to Protect Kids and Teens From Online Scams

Wondering how to keep kids safe online? It all starts with a conversation. Knowledge is power, and a simple discussion can help raise awareness of potential issues on the internet. There are a number of online resources to use as you talk about online safety with your kids, including the following:

In addition to these online resources, parents can protect their kids by learning about internet safety. Bitterli shares the following tips courtesy of McAfee, an online protection solutions company.

Understand the risk: Making the threat real and believing a scam can happen to you is a significant step in safeguarding your family. This includes discussing current digital threats and leveling up mobile security wherever possible.

Do your homework: Read app reviews before young users download them. If an app is sketchy in any way, users will be vocal in the app review section. In addition, do an online search of the app to see what consumers and other watchdog agencies like the Better Business Bureau (BBB) say about the app. Check BBB Scam Tracker to see if others have been duped.

Safeguard personal data. Remind kids not to share their address or other personal information online. Pop-ups, trendy quizzes, and linked websites can be ruses designed to steal bits and pieces of personal information that can be used as the basis of an attack.

Maximize security. When using cash apps, turn on additional security features, such as multi-factor authentication. You can also create a PIN or rely on fingerprint recognition.

Subscribe to a mobile antivirus program. Just like computers, mobile devices can be infected with viruses and malware. Protect mobile devices by subscribing kids to an antivirus product, such as McAfee Mobile Security, which offers safe browsing, scanning for malicious apps, and location tracking for lost or stolen devices.

Only connect with people you know. Remind your teens that when using cash apps, only exchange money with people you know. Unlike an insured bank, P2P apps do not refund the money you've paid out accidentally or in a scam scenario. They hold users 100 percent responsible for transfers.

Use a VPN. When downloading any apps, encourage young users to avoid public Wi-Fi transfers. Public Wi-Fi is susceptible to hackers trying to access valuable personal information. If you must use public Wi-Fi, consider setting up a verified and trusted Virtual Private Network (VPN).

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