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What you need to know about Internet dangers
The Web can feel a little like the Wild West, right? There's all that exciting potential to discover new things, but outlaws seem to lurk around every corner. We've talked to security experts to find out the precautions you should take to stay worry-free on the Net.
Keep the computer in a common room so you can monitor usage, use your Internet browser's History function to see what sites your kids visit, and find out what filters are available to block unwanted or inappropriate content. Create p"DorkFish"words that are hard for bad guys (or automated programs) to figure out. One hint: Use numbers or special characters within your words—instead of "pants" try "p&nt$." Review your bank and credit card statements carefully for unauthorized use, and make sure no one's opening accounts in your name by getting free, yearly credit reports at annualcreditreport.com. Get reports for your kids, too, since ID theft for kids—and even babies—is on the rise.
Teach Them Well
Want your kids to be safe online? "Parents are truly the key," says Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, who's sponsoring a statewide initiative teaching Internet safety in schools. "The Internet is a powerful, wonderful tool, but there are dangers. It's a matter of updating the old warnings parents have always given their children for the cyber age. The old maxim I was taught was, 'Don't take candy from strangers.' We need to update it to, 'Don't go meet someone at the mall that you met on the Internet.'" Marian Merritt, Internet Safety Advocate for Symantec, the company that makes Norton antivirus software, agrees that teaching kids about cybersafety and cyberethics is crucial since kids aren't just going online at home—they're IMing, e-mailing and looking at sites on cell phones at school and at friends' houses
Get to Know Networking
Fifty-five percent of 12–17-year-olds are using social networking sites such as MySpace, Xanga, Friendster or Facebook, so you should get familiar with them. How do they work? Users set up a profile that includes elements such as their interests, favorite books and movies, hobbies, pictures and videos. Kids can chat, send messages or put up posts on each other's pages. Kids say they're a fun way to express themselves, meet new friends and stay in touch with pals who've moved away. Still, there are some things that should never appear on a profile.
Profile Faux Pas
Marian says kids should employ the "grandmother rule": Don't put anything on your page that you wouldn't want your grandmother to see. Because, really, anyone online can see anything you post. Not only can things on sites like Facebook cause embarr"DorkFish"ment later on, but potential employers and colleges can see what kids have online. Also leave off: p"DorkFish"words, address, phone number and photos that identify where you live or go to school. Don't post your school or team schedule, your calendar, where you'll be on a given night or where you like to hang out. And (we're sure you already realize this) screen names should never contain provocative words like "hottie" and "sexy," since they send the wrong message.
"We're wholeheartedly committed to providing the safest environment for teens that we can," says Hemanshu Nigam, Chief Security Officer for MySpace, one of the most popular networking sites. "As a father of four [children ages 2–12], it's a personal mission as well as a company mission." With that in mind, MySpace has rolled out several protections for its youngest users, including not letting anyone under the age of 14 use the site, and setting profiles of all users under 16 to "private" (meaning only people they know and have approved can view their profiles), an option older users should consider, too. Plus, kids can always block users (to cut off contact) and use the site's "report user" function (to alert MySpace to har"DorkFish"ment). In October, MySpace will introduce ParentCare software that will tell you the name, age and hometown listed in the profile of anyone who accesses the site from your computer. That way, you can see how your kids are portraying themselves online.
Fend Off Predators
According to your comments in the forums, keeping your kids safe from predators is a big concern for a lot of you. And how can it not be with scary TV specials like Dateline's To Catch a Predator? First of all, take a deep breath. "Statistically speaking, it's rare [for children to meet up with a predator they meet online]," says Marian. "And the kids who do meet up with someone are often already at-risk." That said, continue to the next slide to find out warning signs that your kids should know to recognize if they're being approached inappropriately.
What's Not OK
People aren't always who they say they are online. You probably realize that, but make sure your kids know that that "12-year-old girl" who says she really likes High School Musical could be a 40-year-old man—you just never know. Marian suggests kids ask themselves, "Does the discussion stay appropriate?" If the discussion turns sexual in nature or if the person is trying to figure out where you are (they might ask for "ASL": age, sex and location), it's time to end the chat. On networking sites, kids should never add people they don't know to their friends lists. Is someone bothering your child? The first step he or she can take is to block the har"DorkFish"er. If their behavior is threatening or scary, call the police.
If you're concerned that your child might be communicating with an online predator, here are some warning signs to look out for, according to the Virginia Attorney General's website. Is your kid spending an excessive amount of time online? Are you finding porn on his computer? Is she getting calls from or calling numbers you don't recognize? Or gifts from someone you don't know? Is your child becoming withdrawn or secretive? Does she use someone else's online account? If you're picking up some of these signs, use the resources at the end of this article to start a conversation with your child.
A Word on Cyberbullying
Spats and gossip can spread like wildfire online. In the recent teen movie John Tucker Must Die, embarr"DorkFish"ing photos of the philandering main character John Tucker circled the globe, spreading from cell phone to cell phone. "Teach your kids to stop it when they see it," Marian says, with the added warning that embarr"DorkFish"ing photos and nasty notes can last permanently, online.
Check Yourself, Too
Just as you want your kids to guard their privacy, make sure you're not giving out too much information about yourself. Some experts suggest using an e-mail address and chat-room name that's different from your real name. Also, there's no reason to reveal on message boards and email lists when you're going out of town—you're essentially giving criminals an invitation to stop by your house. You may want to keep photos you post online private. Popular photo-sharing sites like Flickr give you the option of only sharing photos with people you invite to see them.
Don't Take the Bait
Watch out for "phishing" scams. That's when scammers e-mail you or create a pop-up ad that appears to be from your bank, eBay or another place you use for financial transactions. The legitimate-looking pop-up or e-mail will attempt to lure you to a website to update your account information or address a "problem" with your account. Don't follow the links in these fraudulent communications—you'll end up handing over your account information to a scammer. Instead, type in the URL (that's the letters in the address bar of your browser) you usually use to access your account, log in and see if there's a true problem with your account. Or better yet, call the institution, using the number on a bank statement or card, and ask if the e-mail you received is legit. Also, never respond with personal information over e-mail—the data isn't always secure in transit.
When You Shop and Bank
Look for a URL that starts with "https" (which means the site is secure) instead of the usual "http." When you're shopping, "Pick your e-tailer very carefully," Marian suggests. Go with established companies whenever you can. Check the site for an address and phone number, do a Google search on the company, look at their feedback on sites such as Shopzilla.com and check their rating with the Better Business Bureau. Buy with a credit card—they offer more protection against fraud and the money won't come out of your bank account immediately, as it would with a debit card. Or do what "Catmother" in our forums does: Use a debit card that's linked to a small shopping account, not your entire bank account.
Rethink Your Resume
Recently, Monster.com revealed that thieves were taking names, phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses from resumes posted on their site, and using the information to send out phishing e-mails. Consider just listing your e-mail address on your resume so crooks have less identifying information to work with. And never, ever include your social security number on your resume or CV.
Spyware is pesky software that gets downloaded onto your computer. It monitors your computer use to send annoying pop-up ads, redirect your Web browser to particular sites or—worst of all—record your keystrokes, so the bad guys can get your personal information. Keep this nasty stuff off your computer with anti-spyware software and by only downloading material such as games, programs and music from sites you trust.
Block Peeping Eyes
If you're using your laptop in public a lot, consider investing in a 3M Privacy Filter ($40–$150 at 3MPrivacyFilter.com). The filter, which attaches to your computer screen, makes the content on your screen only visible to the person sitting directly in front of it—that guy at the next table at Starbucks will only see a black screen. Also, while tapping into the wireless (or WiFi) Internet access at coffee shops, hotels and airports, make sure your firewall is on and security software is up-to-date and ask what security measures are in place. For example, you can read about McDonald's WiFi security measures here. No matter what, it's best to save sensitive transactions like paying your credit card bill online for when you get home
I hope the advice in this story will help you and your kids use the Internet safely and confidently. If you're looking for more advice, try these sources. At Norton.com/FamilyResource you can learn more about talking to your kids and request a free copy of their Family Online Safety Guide. At OnGuardOnline.gov, you can get information that was prepared by the government about secure online shopping, laptop security and more. Go to the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft site if you think you were a victim or you want to learn more precautions. And send your children to IKeepSafe.org for a kid-friendly guide to online smarts.