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 reported losing $8.8 billion to fraud — up 30 percent from 2021 — the 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.
The FBI received 15,782 reports of online/digital scams from people age 19 and younger in 2022, with losses of $210.5 million (more than double 2021’s reported losses), the agency notes in its 2022 Internet Crime Report. 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 2022 Pew Research Center survey of 1,316 teens.
One of the most pernicious crimes these days is sextortion, where kids are blackmailed after sending compromising photos of themselves to an impostor they thought was a peer. The FBI issued a joint warning with international law enforcement agencies regarding an explosion in such incidents, noting that in the past year, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has received more than 10,000 sextortion-related reports. Officials describe it as a “global crisis.”
And a June 5 FBI alert warns that criminals are now creating “deepfakes,” digitally altering benign photos and videos of young people into explicit content before either posting them online or using them for sextortion. What’s alarming, the alert notes, is that “technology advancements are continuously improving the quality, customizability and accessibility of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled content creation.”
Among the other scams teens encounter are shopping scams, fraudulent offers of scholarships or student loan assistance, and fake talent scouts promising fame and fortune.
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.”
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.
Common scams targeting teens
How it works: In one scenario, the criminal contacts a teen online through social media or gaming sites, 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 2022 law enforcement received more than 7,000 reports of sextortion, the FBI said in a December alert, "resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, and more than a dozen suicides." And “the fact is that the many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray, who called the increase in these incidents “horrific.”