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Help Your Teen Avoid Online Scams and Identity Theft

Criminals are targeting kids with fake shopping sites, scholarship offers, sextortion and more

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Society has always been plagued with scammers, but these criminals have only grown more aggressive and sophisticated through the years, using tech advancements to their advantage. Last year Americans lost $5.8 billion to fraud — up from $3.3 billion in 2020 — the vast majority through email, social media or other digital means, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). 

And the criminals have no qualms about stealing from kids — whether it’s their money or their identities.

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The FBI received 14,919 reports of scams from people age 19 and younger in 2021, with losses of $101.4 million. But the real cost is likely much higher, says Steve Weisman, a professor of white-collar crime at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and an expert in scams, identity theft and cybersecurity. That’s primarily due to underreporting, he notes, “either out of embarrassment or out of a feeling that reporting the crime would be useless.”

Cybercriminals have plenty of opportunities to target young people, who tend to spend much of their lives on their phones and laptops. (Watch related video: What to Say When Your Teen Spends Too Much Time Online.) Almost half (46 percent) of teens say they are online “almost constantly,” up from 24 percent in 2014-2015, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 1,316 teens conducted April 14 to May 4. 

Among the scams teens encounter are sextortion (where kids are blackmailed after sending compromising photos of themselves to an impostor they thought was a peer), shopping scams, fraudulent offers of scholarships or student loan assistance, and fake talent scouts promising fame and fortune.

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The criminals are typically after money or personal information for identity theft, Weisman says.

Teens are extremely tech-savvy in many respects, but “that doesn’t mean that they can interpret what they see [online] accurately,” notes Carrie James, a sociologist and principal investigator at Project Zero, an educational research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It’s really a mistake to think that they always understand what they’re engaging with and, more importantly, what to do about it.”

a teenage boy, who may be a scammer or being scammed, crouched over a laptop outdoors
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Educating your teen

Experts suggest that parents discuss internet safety with their children and keep a few things in mind when doing so:

  • It’s not helpful or realistic to say to teens — as many of our parents once said to us — don’t talk to strangers. Kids already talk to strangers online, says Emily Weinstein, a principal investigator at Project Zero and coauthor with James of the new book Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing), which includes information gleaned from surveying over 3,500 teenagers about their tech use and concerns. If parents focus their messaging on avoiding strangers, Weinstein notes, they “miss an opportunity to talk to them about things like, ‘How do you judge if someone is who they say they are?’ And ‘What do you do if someone who you thought was a friend of a friend starts saying stuff that makes you uncomfortable?’”
  • Don’t assume you know everything that your teens are doing online. Approach their tech use “with open-ended questions and a lot of curiosity, to understand how these issues are actually taking shape in our kids’ lives,” Weinstein says.
  • Look at real-world examples of potential scams together. Show your teens the phishing texts, ads and emails you receive (with common signs of spam, such as misspellings and sender email addresses that don’t match the company’s name), and evaluate them together, says Diana Graber, a cofounder of Cyberwise, a website for adults who want to help young people use technology safely, and the author of Raising Humans in a Digital World. “Show them the email that claims to be from AT&T,” she suggests, “and say, ‘Look at this. It says it’s from AT&T, but look at the address it’s sent from. That doesn’t look quite right, does it?’ Or ‘Oh, my goodness, look at this URL. Does that look correct?’ You can almost make it like a game: Here’s how to outsmart the bad guys. “Teens especially hate feeling like they’re being duped or controlled,” James says, “so tapping into that sensitivity can be incredibly powerful.”
  • Don’t take your teen’s phone away as punishment. It’s important that your teens know they can come to you for help, Graber says, and they will be extremely hesitant to do so if they think they’ll lose their phones. 
  • Teach them scam-busting basics — which adults should always have in mind for their own online security as well. 

Scam-busting basics

Beware of requests for gift cards. With any kind of a business transaction, if a seller asks for payment in the form of a gift card “it’s a good indication that it’s a scam,” Weisman says.

Never share nude photos. 

Be suspicious of incredible bargains. Keep in mind the wise old adage, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Don’t accept everyone who asks to be your friend. Criminals will hide behind a fake-friendly online persona to get close to victims.

Think twice before clicking on a link from a company or person you don’t know. It could be malware — malicious software designed to take over your computer and steal data or disrupt its functioning in some way.

Protect your personal information. Don’t respond to email, text messages or phone calls asking you for details to confirm your identity unless you are absolutely sure the request is legitimate. Young people often don’t know their Social Security numbers, so “if your child asks for their Social Security number out of the blue, ask why they want that information,” says Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “And then have a conversation with them about keeping that number safe and secure.”

Choose unique passwords for every site you use. And don’t use any letters or numbers associated with personal information (like your street name or birth date). The more nonsensical the letter-number-symbol combo, the better.  

Beware of any transaction involving cryptocurrency. The FTC is seeing a surge in crypto-related fraud; crooks love it, the agency warns, because there’s no bank involved that would normally flag suspicious transactions, and crypto transfers are hard to trace and can’t be reversed.   

Pay attention to “red flag feelings.” That’s what Common Sense Media calls that gut-level sense that something is not quite right. When you feel that way, pause and think carefully before acting.

Try not to feel shame or blame yourself if you lose money in a scam. Anyone can be a fraud victim, just as anyone can be physically robbed. Tell a trusted adult who will support you and help you report the crime.

Common scams targeting teens

Sextortion

How it works: In one scenario, the criminal contacts a teen online through social media, presenting themselves as a peer, and the relationship starts off with a bit of flirting. Eventually the poser asks the victim for a nude picture — maybe first sending what they say is their own photo (but isn’t). If the victim complies, then the criminal threatens to send the compromising pictures to their family and friends unless they pay up.

In 2021, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints, with losses of more than $13.6 million.

The agency warns that boys in particular are being targeted by adults pretending to be young girls. They say that there’s been an uptick in cases where the predator convinces “a young male, usually 14 to 17 years old, to engage in explicit activity over video, which is then secretly recorded by the scammer.” Then they reveal the scam and blackmail demands.

“The callers are asking kids to get their parents’ credit card and give them the number,” says Jenna Sellitto, an FBI public affairs specialist in Atlanta. “And because it’s scary and embarrassing, they comply.”

She adds that the criminals aren’t typically pedophiles: “Usually what we’re seeing is this is just a crime of opportunity for money. They don’t actually want these images of these boys.”

What parents and teens should know: It’s important to discuss the dangers of sharing nude photos with anyone — even someone you’re dating. “It’s a difficult subject to talk about,” Sellitto says, “but we want them to bring it up, even if you know the kid’s not receptive — saying, ‘Hey, I’ve heard about this and I need you to be careful online.’”

And make sure your teens know that if they are targeted for sextortion, they will not be in trouble, and you’ll help and support them.

Experts on sextortion emphasize how crucial it is for young people to have an adult they can talk to in these cases; some victims, feeling too scared and embarrassed to share their experiences, have died by suicide. “It’s just heartbreaking,” Graber says. “I think that we forget that, when we think of the teenage brain, they can’t think long term. They think of the now, and Oh, my gosh, there’s no way I can fix this.”

More advice for sextortion victims from the FBI:

  • Notify your local police, and report the crime to the FBI at IC3.gov. (The agency has more information on sextortion online.)
  • Save the evidence. “A lot of people will delete the messages” between themselves and the criminal, Sellitto says. “We’re asking them not to do that so they can give us as much information as possible.” 

Shopping scams

How they work: Criminals will create a website or send ads through social media selling cool sneakers or hot electronics at bargain-basement prices; kids purchase them and never receive the goods. Scammers often will pay for their sites to appear higher in search results, says AARP’s Nofziger, “and a lot of people will assume that, because it’s at the top, it’s the most used and the most legitimate, and they’ll click on that site.”

During prom season, the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline received a spate of reports from shoppers who’d bought prom dresses that never arrived. “They wanted to wear something that wasn’t sold at the mainstream stores, so ended up placing orders at fake dress shops,” Nofziger says.

Sometimes criminals create extremely realistic-looking fake sites for legitimate stores; Weisman (whose motto is “Trust me: You can’t trust anyone”) recently saw a fake Walmart site, he says, “and it looked perfect. I mean, it was really good. Some of these guys are masters.”

What parents and teens should know: Always use a verifiable or a trusted vendor, even if you have to pay a bit more for the item. If you’ve looked everywhere and haven’t been able to find a certain kind of sneaker, for instance, and then land on a website that has every size and color available? That’s suspicious. Other ways to spot a potential fraud:

Do some quick research. Type the store name into a search engine, with words like “fraud” or “scam” or “reviews” after it, Nofziger suggests. See what other people are saying about it.

  • Check the URL to see if something looks off. You can also go to a site like Whois.com; if you type in the URL, you can see who the website is registered to. “If you go and find that the ‘Walmart’ website has only been up for about a week, or that it’s registered to someone in North Korea, you’ve got a pretty good idea that it’s a scam,” Weisman says.
  • Use credit over debit. If you do purchase something online, Weisman notes, use a credit card rather than a debit card, because “the laws protecting you from fraud are much stronger with a credit card than with a debit card.” The federal law is that you can’t be charged more than $50 for a fraudulent purchase on your credit card. Getting reimbursed for a fraudulent charge made with your debit card might take a bit more work.
  • Always save your receipts or confirmation emails. The FTC advises, “If something goes wrong, these will help you get your money back from the seller or file a dispute with your credit card company.”
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Telltale phrases in financial aid scams

  • “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
  • “You can’t get this information anywhere else.”
  • “I just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship."
  • “We’ll do all the work. You just pay a processing fee.”
  • “The scholarship will cost some money.”
  • “You're a finalist [for a contest you never entered].”  

Scholarship and student-loan-payment scams

How they work: In a loan scam, the criminal might call to say he or she can discharge your loan for a fee, or can get you a lower interest rate. The goal typically is to get your personal information, Weisman says, “because that kind of data is very, very valuable,” although sometimes you’ll be asked to pay a fee for their services.

Teens are probably more likely to be targeted by fake offers of scholarships, Weisman adds, where the scammers often are seeking money, in the form of upfront fees, rather than personal information. An email, letter, social media post or text will show up — sometimes personalized with the student’s name — saying you’ve been selected for a particular scholarship or financial aid package, the FTC warns: “Sometimes, there’s a callback number or details about an in-person workshop at a local hotel,” the agency notes, where they’ll hit kids with high-pressure sales pitches and requests that they pay for their services immediately or miss out.  

Others will offer to handle student loan paperwork for a fee, then will fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), sometimes with false information, the FTC says.

“Only you and your family can complete your FAFSA — which is always free to fill out and submit,” the FTC says.

It’s added an additional warning that scammers are likely to take advantage of President Joe Biden’s August 24 announcement of a plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for millions of borrowers. The initial confusion about who’s eligible and other details of the plan makes the situation ripe for criminals. Keep in mind, says the agency, “you don’t need to do anything or pay anybody to sign up for the new program… Nobody can get you in early, help you jump the line, or guarantee eligibility. And anybody who says they can — or tries to charge you — is (1) a liar, and (2) a scammer. Sign up for Department of Education updates to be notified when the process has officially opened.

What parents and teens should know: The FTC says to watch for telltale phrases indicating that a scholarship or financial aid offer is a scam.

Talent scout scams

How they work: Criminals will reach out to teens through direct messaging or social media saying you’d make a great model, actor or singer, and say, “We want to sign you, but we have a contingency fee,” says Nofziger.

The FTC says a scammer might offer to set up a photo shoot or classes to help the teen get a modeling or acting job — for a price, of course.

What parents and teens should know: Among the FTC’s advice for avoiding talent scout scams is, “Real modeling agencies won’t ask you to pay for a test shoot, for your photographs, or to ‘secure your spot’ for a modeling job.” Beware if they rush you to sign a contract, they promise big salaries or you can’t find much about their company online.  

You also may be dealing with a scammer if they insist you use a particular photographer for headshots, notes Rachel Patterson, director of Acting Studio Chicago, on the studio’s website. She adds, “Do not pay to join a website which promises to find you auditions in ‘your area.’ Film, television and commercial auditions come through union (and sometimes non-union) agencies. If you really want to audition for on-camera projects, typically you need great training, headshots and a resume.” 

Even if parents are sure the offer’s not legit, they might want to be careful about saying to their teen outright that it’s a scam, says Nofziger, because “if you shut them down, then they’re not going to have that open communication with you. And they’re probably going to go ahead and send the money because they think that this is their chance.”

Depending on your child’s attitude toward the offer, she suggests approaching the subject less confrontationally, like “Let’s look at this opportunity together. If they’re sending you a contract, let’s have our lawyer review it.”  

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.

Where to report fraud 

Visit ReportFraud.FTC.gov. The FTC’s site also offers useful information on the latest scams and how to avoid them. In cases of financial aid or scholarship fraud, also contact your state attorney general.

If you or your child has been a victim of sextortion, notify local police, and report the crime to the FBI at IC3.gov or by calling 800-225-5324 (CALL-FBI).

Report identity theft at IdentityTheft.gov, where you can also obtain a step-by-step, personal recovery plan.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network™ can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our ScamTracking Map, or call our toll-free AARP Fraud Helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.