Staying Safe Online in the New School Year

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by Anath Hartmann

Now that we’ve officially entered the post-Labor-Day season, most of the nation’s youth is back in school. Though it may be hard to believe, the start of the academic year likely means an uptick in Internet use. Findings of recent years show that many middle- and high-school kids regularly use the Internet for homework. Of course, in this digital age most of us, regardless of age, would be hard-pressed to conceive of life without the Internet. The Web has saved lives, spread access to education across socio-economic levels and borders, and fostered literacy. But being wired can be a double-edged sword, particularly for the more trusting among us.

At Phillips & Company we are partly in the business of social media, and we could sing the praises of Twitter, Facebook, Vine and other such sites for hours. But we also know that remaining safe in the three dimensions necessitates a degree of prudence online. That’s why, as our kids and teens settle into another academic year, we’d like to offer the following tips for parents and guardians:

Be Aware

Knowing what your kids are doing online may seem like a no-brainer, but in a real-life context of working parents, multiple offspring and household logistics, this one could easily fall by the wayside. In fact, a 2013 McAfee poll showed that 74 percent of parents don’t know what their children do online. Don’t have the time or inclination to helicopter parent? Your PC might already have the tools you need. Multiple versions of Windows have built-in content blockers. Easily purchased safety software abounds online, too, and most are quick to set up. One we recommend is OpenDNS, which offers both free and premium options.

Have the Talk

Nope, not that one; we mean the internet safety talk. Depending on your child’s age, you may get some eye rolling or one or 10 “I know”s, but sitting down with your kids to discuss the dangers of divulging personal information (names, Social Security numbers, physical addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, school names, etc.) will pay dividends.

Look Gift Horses in the Mouth

It’s equally important not to be fooled by increasingly sophisticated scammers who seem to appear out of the blue bearing gifts. Here’s a real-life story to help illustrate the point: A Phillips team member recently received an official-looking PayPal envelope in the mail, complete with a printed logo, and it included a check. Knowing there’s no such thing as free lunch, and being confused by the vague “PayPal customer” identifier in the payee field, she called PayPal to report it. Just as she’d suspected, PayPal said there was no record of any check having been mailed to her.

Given the speed of online-payment transactions and an online shopping environment designed to round off the hard edges of marketplace bureaucracy to make spending money easier, the scammer probably hoped the Phillips employee would simply assume a previous payment to an online merchant had failed to go through and she still owed someone money. Don’t be fooled.

Be Password Privy

After the Heartbleed bug panic earlier this year, we all should have changed our online passwords. Don’t assume that your children wouldn’t have been affected; identity theft of minors is becoming more common. In that vein, make a point of knowing your kids’ passwords. This doesn’t mean you have to pull a Roseanne Conner and read their ‘diaries.’ But letting them know you could if you wanted to should go a long way toward keeping their online sharing safe and G-rated. Keep the list of their passwords and yours somewhere safe. As an added measure of protection, we recommend an online password keeper such as LastPass.

These tips aren’t comprehensive, but they should provide a starting point for keeping your kids and your kids’ private information safe online. Good luck.

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