Smart Living | Digital Parenting

Digital Parenting | 23 Nov 2023

Fastest growing group of online scam victims: it’s teens, not seniors

While older people still lose the most money online, the surge of young victims highlights the growing sophistication of online scammers. We ask the experts how to protect teens and children from financial loss online.

The popular image of a scam victim is a retiree, swindled over the phone. Or perhaps a lovelorn adult led astray on a dating site. New data suggests that the picture is more complicated: the fastest growing group of victims is, in fact, tech-savvy teens.

According to the latest State of Internet Scams report, produced by the reverse search technology company Social Catfish, the amount of money lost by victims aged 20 and younger has grown by nearly 2,500% in five years, from $8.2 million in 2017 to $210 million in 2022. That’s compared to a rise of 805% among seniors. While the study focuses on American victims, it marks a trend that British teens and their families should note.

According to Ofcom, 24% of three- and four-year-olds have their own social media profiles. This rises to 60% of eight- to 11-year-olds. But in a recent survey, the communications regulator found a discrepancy between these children’s perception of their savviness online, and their real ability to spot fraud. Nearly a quarter (23%) of kids were confident they could distinguish between what’s real and what’s fake online, yet they could not identify a fake social media profile when presented with one.

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Part of the problem is that it’s getting much harder to spot fakes, explains Social Catfish, which cites new tactics such as ‘voice cloning’ and ‘deep fake’ videos making it look and sound like you are giving money to someone you know, trust or love.” In fact, in 2022, Action Fraud found that more than 1,000 UK-based children and teens were being scammed every month.

So how can you help your child wise up to, and steer clear of, online scams?

First, make them aware of the most common types of online scams.

Five common scams targeting teens

The ‘influencer’ scam. In July 2023, the UK’s Creative Industries Minister Sir John Whittingdale announced plans to crack down on fake celebrity scams online. “Our plans will shut down the scammers using online adverts to con people out of their cash and will stop damaging and inappropriate products being targeted at children,” he said.

According to Social Catfish, this is one of the most common online scams targeting teens right now. A scammer will create a fake account, pretending to be an influencer who is popular with teens. They will then host a fake contest, before asking the ‘winner’ to pay a fee or provide their bank account to win the prize.

The ‘friend in need’ scam: Of course, online scams do not only happen on social media. According to research from WhatsApp, 89% of young people prefer text-based methods of communication to phone calls. This puts ‘generation text’ at greater risk of text-based scams such as the classic ‘friend-in-need’ model, in which a scammer poses as a friend who suddenly and urgently needs you to transfer cash in order for them to get out of a difficult or dangerous situation.

The ‘bargain basement’ scam: A pair of designer trainers, or this summer’s ‘must have’ dress is listed on eBay, Facebook or a fake website at an incredible price. The scammer takes your money, then disappears into thin air.

The ‘gaming’ scam: Almost 20% of gamers have either been the victim of an in-game scam or know someone who has, according to research from Lloyd’s Bank. Here scammers encourage young people to hand over card details in exchange for in-game currency, characters, tools or tips.

The ‘sextortion’ scam: In the States, the FBI recently issued an alert about the growing number of teens being targeted in what they call ‘financial sextortion.’ It happens across the world. Scammers, posing as teens, befriend a victim before asking for an explicit photo and then demanding money in exchange for not posting it.

Next, help them learn how to rebuff scammers.

Teaching your kids to question what they see online, on TV and in the papers

On Safer Internet Day, we give parents tips on how to protect kids against dodgy TikTok videos, Facebook conspiracy theories, fake news and unreliable social media influencers.

Send scrammers scramming

“If your child has been the victim of a social media scam, you should: Stop all communications and take screenshots of existing communications; reassure them and let them know that it is okay; make a report on the social media app or gaming platform,” says digital parenting coach Dr Elizabeth Milovidov.

“There is no shame in being a victim of a social media scam, but users can reduce the risk of something negative happening online if they employ critical thinking and pose questions on what can be true or false.”

Talking to your kids about online scamming is essential, agrees Louise Hill, co-founder and CEO of GoHenry, a debit card and app that lets kids ages 6-18 learn practical money management skills. “Teaching kids about money management isn’t all about saving and budgeting, they also need to know how to keep their money safe,” she points out.

“A common theme when it comes to online scams is getting people to enter their personal or bank details, often via messages or links which look legitimate. Parents should explain that if they’re asked to share any personal details like their card PIN, password or log-in details via a text message, direct message on social media or link in an email, it’s most likely a scam. Genuine businesses would never ask for this sort of information – especially via these channels – and they should flag it to their parents straight away.”

Thankfully, there are lots of resources out there to help both you and your children understand scams, spot them and stop falling victim to them.

Body image and social media: How to talk to your teenager

Influencers and charities are tackling unrealistic standards of beauty head-on, as teenagers grapple with impossible expectations, often to the detriment of their mental health.

Social media scams. Common Sense is an organisation that reviews digital materials and develops resources to help children and young people to successfully navigate the online world. It has developed its own short course to help tweens avoid online identity theft, scams and phishing schemes. Called Don’t Feed the Phish, it’s free to download, takes around 45 minutes for your child to complete, and includes a list of common red flags through which to identify potential scams, from a sense of urgency (‘When the sender says you only have a limited time to respond’) to spelling and grammar mistakes (‘a real company does not send out messages with such errors’).

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre offers an interactive video in which 11-14 year-olds can make choices on behalf of three teens featured in the film and explore some of the most common cyber scams.

Message-based scams. WhatsApp’s anti-scam campaign, developed with the UK charity Friends Against Scams, urges people of all ages to ‘stop, think, call’:

  • STOP: Take five before you respond. Make sure your WhatsApp two-step verification is switched on to protect your account, that you’re happy with your privacy settings, and that your six-digit pin is secure.
  • THINK: Does this request make sense? Are they asking you to share a two-step verification PIN code which has been sent to you? Are they asking for money? Remember that scammers prey on people’s kindness, trust and willingness to help.
  • CALL: Verify that it really is your friend or family member by calling them directly, or asking them to share a voice note. Only when you’re 100% sure that the request is from someone you know and trust should you consider it. If it turns out to be untrue, report it to Action Fraud.

Helping your child to identify online scams doesn’t need to be daunting. Instead, as kids spend more time online and scams increase in sophistication, it’s a vital part of their education, putting them on the path towards digital literacy, critical thinking and financial acumen.

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