Things That Go Bump in the Night — Er, On the Web
The internet is an incredibly useful and resourceful tool, but it’s also an alluring hangout for bad guys. And it’s a permanent record. Once you post or publish something, a record of it is there for good — even if you delete the original message or images. This is why it’s important that kids, “tweens,” and teenagers alike understand the power of their individual online presences.
Internet safety, first and foremost, begins at home with parents who educate their kids about the dangers that lurk online. But, as a parent — or as a teacher who wants to educate those in their care — how can you teach kids, tweens, and teens about threats that you may not know exist?
The reality is that many kids and teens are more familiar than their parents with the cyber world and the different apps that exist. They just pick up on all of it more quickly. And, unfortunately, parents often either don’t understand or are unaware of what their kids and teens are doing on these apps. And considering that the online enticement of children and teenagers occurs on virtually every online platform, it’s crucial that you and your kids understand the risks that exist online.
To aid you in this goal, we’re here to help you familiarize yourself with some of the most common — and most dangerous — cyber attack methods and threats that could target or otherwise affect your children. You’ll find tips and suggestions from our experts throughout this resource.
Common Cyber Attack Methods & Threats
First let’s start with a list of the most common methods cybercriminals use to target kids and teenagers:
- Connecting via chat apps
- Connecting via social media
- Malicious software and mobile apps
- Phishing and otherwise malicious websites
- Phishing and malicious emails
- Phishing links
- Text message phishing (SMS phishing or “smishing”)
- Voice phishing (“vishing”) phone calls
These different tactics come into play in different ways depending on the cybercriminal or predator. Now let’s take a look at the most common ways that kids and teens are harassed or victimized online.
Did you know that 21% of “tweens” (ages 9-12) have experienced cyberbullying in one form or another? And half of tweens who have been cyberbullied said they stopped it by telling a parent about what was happening. These statistics are from 2020 research by the Cyberbullying Research Center and Cartoon Network.
Image source: Cyberbulling.org. A screenshot of statistics from Cartoon Network and the Cyberbulling Research Center.
Cyberbullying is one of the most common threats facing kids and teens today online. It can occur through the use of text messages, email, online game, chat apps, social media, and online forums. Some common tactics of cyberbullying include (but aren’t limited to):
- Posting mean or hurtful images or comments,
- Spreading lies or rumors,
- “Doxxing” or spreading private information about the victim in public forums, and
- Encouraging the victim to hurt or kill themselves.
Image source: 2019 Google Survey
Teachers report cyberbullying as their top safety concern in classrooms, according to a January 2019 Google survey. This is a type of attack that can affect kids and teens of all ages and, in some cases, may result in:
- Concentration issues,
- Mood changes and disturbances,
- Poor grades,
- Failed relationships,
- Depression or low self-esteem, or
Check out this video for kids from Common Sense Education that talks about the difference between bullying and cyber bullying:
And here’s a great video from Dr. Phil for teenagers on the effects of cyberbullying:
This category of threat takes cyberbullying and increases the severity of the situation to a whole new level. As the name would imply, this type of activity involves someone — a kid, teen, or adult — using various electronic communications methods to stalk your child or teenager online. It can involve the use of email, social media, text messages, phone calls, as well as the creation of fake profiles, online postings, and more.
The goal of cyberstalking is often to create substantial emotional harm by sending harassing or threatening messages. It also is a tactic that people use to intimidate and control victims. Not only does this behavior demonstrate an unhealthy fixation or obsession, but it can lead to other more dangerous crimes such as sextortion or abduction of your child or teen.
The goal of cyberstalking is often to create substantial emotional harm by sending harassing or threatening messages.
This particular method of attack involves someone collecting and posting personal and sensitive information about your child or teenager online without their permission. The goal may be to harass or threaten your child or simply to prank them. Regardless, this activity can have long-lasting effects. Not only can it affect your child’s emotional and mental well-being, but it also puts their physical, financial, and identity security at risk of attack.
Blackmail Scams (Sextortion)
Blackmail and “sextortion” scams are among the most common threats that Cronister says he sees nowadays in terms of frequency. This involves a cybercriminal integrating themselves within your child’s online circle of friends. They then reach out with a blackmail scheme where they claim to have one or more inappropriate pictures of the child that they’re going to share with everyone unless the child sends them certain types of inappropriate pictures.
This type of situation can quickly devolve into kids or teens feeling like they have no other choice than to comply. They may feel embarrassed or guilty, so they will not want to talk to you about it. This type of threat, which can occur via email, social media and chat apps, targets kids and teens alike.
- One in 20 middle and high school age students report being a sextortion victim.
- 3% report “threatening others who had shared an image with them in confidence.”
- Victims of sextortion are more likely to become offenders of the same crime against others.
Many, though not all, cases of sextortion start with sexting between two kids or teens. Sexting can involve the exchange of sexually explicit content — texts, pictures, and/or video — via phones, computers, or other devices. One party may ask or demand the other to send nude pictures of themselves. And the image sender, thinking that the exchange will remain private, sends images that the recipient may then wind up sharing with their friends or posting online.
Here is another great video from Common Sense Education in which teens talk about the dangers of sexting:
Credit Card Theft
This particular type of attack affects older kids, teens, and their parents depending on the specific situation. Cybercriminals use phishing emails and messages as a way to take over your kids’ or teens’ online accounts or to steal credit card details that are associated with those accounts.
A good best practice for parents is to actively monitor your kids’ and teens’ credit for activity. Another route you can take is to contact the three credit bureaus and freeze their accounts until they come of age. This protects their identity until they are old enough to use it themselves by restricting access.
This is one of the biggest risks for everyone — kids, teens, and adults alike. While it’s okay to have friendships online, it’s important that kids and teens in particular remember to be careful about what they share online. Here’s a great video from Common Sense Education in which teens talk about information that kids and teens shouldn’t share online:
The truth is that it’s easy to overshare information, particularly on social media. Although they may seem harmless, completing or posting survey responses is one of the easiest ways to overshare online. What your kid or teen doesn’t realize is that those surveys are created by scammers who use them as a way to collect personal information about people.
- What’s your mother’s maiden name?
- What’s your favorite color?
- What was the name of your first pet?
- What street did you grow up on?
- What model was your first car?
- What was the name of your favorite high school teacher?
Do these questions look familiar? They should. These are some of the most commonly used security questions for accessing important accounts — everything from email to bank accounts.
Smart Toys and Connected Devices
As a parent, it’s only natural for you to want your kids to have the things you didn’t have when you were growing up. And one of the popular go-to options for parents with young children are smart toys. But Kshetri warns that even smart devices that are created for kids — or to monitor kids — are not always safe and may not protect your kids’ privacy and data.
According to Kshetri:
“They may not have high levels of security and privacy. They normally operate in a gray area and violate a lot of privacy. They might be taking information from kids who play games. Kids have to provide a lot of information just to play a game.”
Some examples of the personal information he’s talking about are your kid’s name and even recordings of their voice. Some smart devices and gaming consoles use that information to identify users. However, it’s also data that hackers and other cybercriminals would love to get their hands on.
Unfortunately, smart devices tend to have less security than other devices and software. This is, in part, because developers tend to favor convenience and usability over security. There have been multiple news reports about hackers hijacking connected home cameras or baby monitors to watch or speak to children.
For online predators, the goal is to get the child to no longer consider the adult a stranger and begin to trust them so they’ll eventually be willing to meet in person.
Online Grooming (Online Enticement)
This particular threat goes by a couple of different names (depending on the source). For example, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children uses the term “online enticement” to describe internet relationships involving children and teens. Regardless of what you call it the truth is that virtually no online platform is safe from the online enticement of kids and teens.
Grooming is among the most dangerous types of cyber threats to kids. Grooming occurs when a predator — typically an older male — becomes “friends” with kids and teens. This can occur both online and in person. For online predators, the goal is to get the child to no longer consider the adult a stranger and begin to trust them so they’ll eventually be willing to meet in person with a goal of eventually getting them to engage in sexual activities. This type of threat usually targets older kids and teens, although it can affect younger kids as well.
CyberTipline data from the NCMEC indicates that while the majority of offenders (78%) stick with using just one platform, 21% say they use multiple platforms to target children and teenagers. In some cases, the communications ultimately lead to the exchange of phone numbers or use of livestream technologies.
But how do these predators target kids? Boys are more likely to use online gaming platforms or exchange phone numbers for calling and texting offenders; girls are more likely to use mainstream social media platforms to engage with offenders.
The goals of these online engagements vary from one offender to the next. However, the most common include:
- Engaging in financially motivated crimes;
- Engaging in sexual conversations and roleplay;
- Exchanging sexually explicit content (images, live broadcasts, etc.); and
- Meeting up to engage in sexual relationships.
The circumstances that lead to kids being abducted can start online as well as offline. The FBI reports that while there are known cases of child abductors using social media to lure and snatch kids, there’s not much known about this method of child abduction. However, they identify these platforms as lower-risk ways to connect with and get kids and teens to trust them than traditional in-person ruses. And when youths meet up, it makes it easier for the predators to take them against their will.
The FBI report states the following:
“Although the number of abductions in which offenders used social media and social networks as the initial contact accounts for a small percentage of FBI child abduction investigations, as children spend more time on a computer or mobile devices with access to social media or networks, the FBI expects the percentage of offenders using social media or networks as the initial contact method to increase. Open source research indicates 22 percent of teenagers log on to their preferred social media website more than 10 times per day and 50 percent of children log on more than once a day. Due to their limited capacity for self-regulation and their heightened susceptibility to peer pressure, children are at greater risk of falling prey to potential child abductors as they navigate social media.”
This is another worst-case scenario kind of situation, but it does happen — often as a result of the grooming tactic we previously mentioned. Human trafficking is a crime that involves the sale and exploitation of adults and children. It’s a form of modern-day slavery that can involve forced labor or sex trafficking.
Although human trafficking affects boys and girls alike, Save The Children reports that 66% of child trafficking victims are girls. Data from the Bureau of international Labor Affairs shows that almost all sex traffic victims (99%) are girls and women.
Identity theft is not just an issue for adults. In fact, one million kids and teens had their identities stolen in 2017, according to a 2018 study by Javelin Strategy & Research. The cost of this fraud? Losses totaling $2.6 billion — and families found themselves paying more than $540 million out of pocket.
Part of the reason why child identity theft is so appealing to cybercriminals is that kids’ and teens’ credit reports are, essentially, blank slates. According to Kshetri:
“Children’s identities can be very attractive for criminals because they don’t have any credit history. Everything can be built from scratch, meaning they can be combined with any other information.”
Basically, bad guys can use their information to apply for loans, credit cards, government benefits, and a lot of other fraudulent activity. And they can do all of this before your child is even old enough to apply for something themselves!
To learn more about child identity theft, check out the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft website.
Revenge Porn (Non-Consensual Pornography)
Non-consensual pornography (NCP), more commonly known as revenge porn, is a particularly ugly crime. Although it doesn’t always involve a malicious motive in the sense of someone doing it to get “even” with another person, this type of crime involves distributing or publishing sexually explicit images of someone without their consent.
I wish we could say that this isn’t a thing, but it is a very real threat that affects teens and adults alike. Thankfully, there is some good news. Here in the U.S., the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative shares that there are 46 states, the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.), and one territory that now have laws against revenge porn.
For example, here in Florida, we have a Florida Statute 784.049 (Sexual Cyberharassment). This law:
- Rules the crime as a misdemeanor for first offense,
- Rules this crime as a third-degree felony for subsequent or aggravated cases.
- Allows officers to arrest without a warrant “any person that he or she has probable cause to believe has committed sexual cyberharassment.”
Check out the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative website to see what laws exist in your state regarding protections against NCP.
This type of activity involves an online acquaintance calling law enforcement making false claims that your child or teenager has either hurt someone or is a threat to other people. The goal is to get the local SWAT team to respond to the unsuspecting target’s house. Although it’s not currently a common threat, instances of swatting are on the rise as online gaming becomes more popular.
Web Cam Spying
The truth is that any devices that are connected to the internet are potentially vulnerable to attack. In some cases, cybercriminals choose to target specific devices or scan entire networks in search of vulnerabilities that they can exploit. This can include web cameras, laptop and desktop devices, smart phones, and IoT devices such as baby monitors, home security systems, and doorbell cameras.