Staying Spotless in a Sea of Slime – Part 6: Whom Can You Trust on the Internet?
by Kathryn H. and Clark L. Kidd

Emphasize to your children that they cannot always believe everything they learn about the people they will meet online. People can lie about their age, their sex, their marital status, and just about anything else.

The last couple of columns in this series have given some very basic advice for parents who are interested in protecting their children from online predators. These columns have generated a few annoyed letters from readers who tell us these precautions are not necessary. Invariably the writers tell us how they haven’t followed those rules, and they haven’t been targeted for scams or stalked by predators. Nor have they become embroiled in online pornography.

What they say is true. People don’t have to follow our suggestions to keep their families safe from dangers that lurk on the Internet. Indeed, we ourselves don’t follow all our own advice. We selected our screen identities many years before the advent of online predators, so we use our own names as screen names. This flies in the face of our suggestions – and indeed, it flies in the face of common sense – but we have never suffered any ill effects beyond being sent an occasional obscene instant message from a stranger.

By the same token, Kathy does just about all her shopping over the Internet and has never had a bad experience. But a friend of ours has tried twice to make a purchase online, and was cheated both times. In one case her credit card information was stolen, and months of chaos ensued. Horrible things happen on the Internet, just as they do on city streets after dark. But they don’t happen to everybody. If you haven’t followed the rules and haven’t gotten into trouble, it doesn’t mean the rules are unnecessary; it simply means you’ve been lucky so far.

The guidelines we have given are just guidelines. Individuals must decide for themselves which rules to adopt for them and their families. Choose the wheat, and discard the chaff. If you don’t have any small children, your online precautions will certainly be different from those who are parents of young families. The same is true for experienced computer users, who – unlike novices – know which rules can be bent and how to do it. Use common sense when developing rules to safeguard your family. Most of the time the precautions you take won’t even be necessary. But the reason you wear a seatbelt is for the one trip in a thousand when wearing a seatbelt would save your life.

Although the advice we have given in previous columns seems elementary to many adult readers, children are not as sophisticated as their parents are. Children are naturally trusting – and this goes double for children who have been raised in a loving home. If you are a parent who has surrounded your children with love and security, your children aren’t used to being lied to or taken advantage of. This makes them extremely vulnerable to predators who want to steal their innocence or your money. Daily newspapers are all too full of stories about children and young adults who trusted strangers they found online and then met with tragedy.

Constantly emphasize to your children that they cannot always believe everything they learn about the people they will meet online. People can lie about their age, their sex, their marital status, and just about anything else. The six-year old girl who is a pen pal with your daughter might in reality be a 40-year old divorced man who gets his thrills by talking to young girls. Some people exaggerate their attributes while online, or tell minor lies. For example, a 35-year old married man might say that he is five years younger and single. A more dangerous type is the person who takes on a completely different persona while online. Often a predator will develop elaborate characters, and then play one role or another in order to deceive a particular child or even an unsuspecting adult.

Fortunately, most people have a small circle of online friends they regularly contact. These are often the same people they interact with in person, such as relatives and friends at school. If you are a parent, allowing your children access to these people should usually present no problem. You should become involved when a child is establishing a new friendship with someone he has never met in person. Keep a close eye on the relationship, until you’re convinced the new friend is really a sheep and not a wolf.

This is a difficult principle to teach, because it probably goes against everything you want your children to be. Parents usually want their children to be outgoing and willing to trust and help others. But just as you must teach your children to be wary of strangers in cars, you must also teach them to be careful of strangers online. This does not mean they have to be rude – just cautious. All communications with strangers should be brief and unrevealing, at least until you are convinced that the person represents no threat. Children should always be taught to consult with their parents when they start responding to communications from a stranger, and they should be reassured that they don’t “have” to answer an email or an instant message just because it appears on the computer screen.

But don’t put the entire burden of keeping your children safe on your children’s shoulders. Most Internet software has some sort of filtering option that will allow parents to choose their children’s email correspondents or instant message “buddies.” We will talk more about parental control options in a future column.

Although the most tragic consequences of Internet crime come from sexual predators, financial opportunists also abound. There are strangers who are looking for your financial information, in order to steal your money and ruin your credit rating. Even if you don’t give that information to strangers, your children may be enticed to do so unless you warn them beforehand.

This is a rerun, but it bears repeating. Teach all family members to be suspicious of any request for personal information, especially if the request comes to you unsolicited. A couple of years ago, many America Online subscribers started receiving e-mails from people who claimed to be America Online employees. These e-mails claimed that in order to solve a system problem, the employee needed to know the recipient’s password immediately. Sometimes the letters said that if the password weren’t given within two minutes of receipt of the letter, the member’s account would be canceled. This scam became so prevalent that warnings appeared on many screens to tell users that real employees would never ask for their password, nor would they ever contact a customer unsolicited. If you ever receive a similar request, not only should you ignore the message, but you should also report the incident to your service provider.

Online thieves are even more sophisticated today. They can design email that looks real, and that can deceive the most jaded computer user. The day before this column was written, Kathy received an email that told her she had won a laptop computer. The letter purported to be from The Sharper Image, and the hook was that The Sharper Image had recently developed a link with America Online and was giving away 100 laptop computers to celebrate the merger. Kathy’s name had allegedly been chosen at random for one of the prizes. All she had to do was follow a link and claim her computer, which would be delivered to her home immediately. It all made sense. Kathy has purchased online from The Sharper Image, and would be in the company’s database. She also subscribes to America Online. The letter was a scam, but it was designed in such a way that it would have deceived many adults. If such a scam can deceive an adult, it can certainly trick an unwary child.

Children should always contact their parents when they wish to purchase something from an online store, and parents themselves should also exercise caution when spending money online. Despite what most people think, the real danger is not in getting your credit card number stolen. Most online businesses support “secure transactions” that scramble any data you send and then unscramble it on the other end. Leaving a carbon copy of a charge slip on a restaurant table probably exposes you to more of a threat than using a secure online transaction. But because our unlucky friend had her credit rating trashed by an unscrupulous online merchant, we know it happens.

The biggest risk from online commerce comes from dealing with companies that may not be honest. You should make sure you know something about the company you are using, and make sure it has a good reputation. Use only online businesses that were recommended by friends or other sources that you trust. And you may want to set aside one charge card to be used for all your online transactions, so that if something bad happens you won’t have put all your eggs in that one Internet basket.

2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.