Are Hackers Targeting Your Kids?Kim Boatman
For the elementary-school set, the Neopets virtual community ranks as one of the most popular places to hang out online. Kids are wild about the online game, and most parents trust the Neopets environment as a safe place for kids to play. But the popularity of the game has also attracted hackers and identity thieves, who are targeting users -- especially kids -- with a number of scams.
Why would a bad guy bother with an 8-year-old and his virtual pet? “It’s not necessarily the kids they are interested in,” explains Steve Santorelli, a former Scotland Yard computer crime detective who now works as director of global outreach for Team Cymru, a nonprofit Internet security research group. “They want access to the PC and all that entails. The kids would be primarily used as a naïve social engineering mechanism to get malicious code onto your PC.”
How kid-targeted scams work
Malicious types rely on kids’ eagerness to gain free Neopet rewards and their lack of knowledge about smart Internet security practices. The Neopets community, owned by media giant Viacom, is considered a safe place for kids to interact. However, the bad guys are likely directing children to other sites, where malicious code can be installed on their families’ PCs.
Hackers may tempt children with the promise of a coveted magic paintbrush that allows users to change their pets’ color. Often, the “fake” site is designed to mimic the official Neopets site. Once the youngster clicks on the link, criminals may attempt to do the following:
- Harvest your keystrokes.
The bad guys might be able to track everything you type into your PC, including passwords and financial information, says Santorelli.
- Steal your data.
Any sensitive information you’ve stored on your PC is at risk, says Lyn Chitow Oakes, chief marketing officer for TrustedID, an identity theft protection company.
- Install adware.
“This will cause your PC to slow and display a stream of ads, in exchange for a small commission from the criminal syndicate that provides the ads,” says Santorelli.
- Use your PC in a botnet.
The bad guys could harness your PC’s power in a network of infected machines used to attack other systems or for other criminal activity.
How to protect yourself
You needn’t deny your child the pleasure of an innocent online game such as Neopets, says Santorelli. You simply need to educate your family about best online security practices and to model that behavior. These steps will help protect your information:
- Talk to your kids.
Explain the risks involved in clicking on supposed free offers. Instruct your kids not to click on or accept any offer without checking with you first. Show them what suspicious links might look like: for instance, a YouTube link promising free Neopets rewards that has several misspellings. Teach kids to be suspicious of anything they receive electronically, advises Santorelli.
- Keep security software up to date.
Use strong antivirus protection, and update it regularly. Make sure your firewall is working.
- Isolate information.
Avoid keeping sensitive information on your PC’s hard drive, says Oakes. Use an external hard drive to store financial data and consider providing your kids with their own computer that’s not used for storing information. “If the stuff isn’t there to be taken, you have less risk,” she says.
- Use parental blocking software.
Parental controls can let you limit the sites your children visit online.
- Consider a credit or identity protection service.
These services can help you monitor activity involving your personal information. At the very least, you should carefully review your bank and credit card statements each month.
Vigilance is likely to protect you from all sorts of online attacks, says Santorelli. However, your best defense when it comes to your kids’ online activities is to tune in. “There really is no substitute for close parental supervision of younger kids online,” he says.
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