I vividly remember the first time I was the 1 millionth visitor to my favorite website as a kid. I patiently waited outside the bathroom door while my Dad showered, in order to surprise him with what I thought was a gift from the internet gods - a free iPhone.
I was utterly disheartened to learn that this wasn’t a scam. As I was able to confirm the following week, when I was once again informed that I was the 1 millionth visitor…
Thankfully I had parents who were skeptical of such scams but little did I know that this would be the tip of the iceberg and become one of the greatest problems facing so many adults later in life.
So what is a scam?
In its simplest definition it is the act of fooling someone into giving away information or money.
Phishing scams are an extremely common form of scam in the modern age, taking the form of emails or text messages.
Children are very susceptible to these scams, due to their curious and naive nature. The FBI reported that the under-21 age group reported total losses in 2020 of roughly $71 million (keep in mind this is just for America).
And this is just the scams that were reported to their hotline. It is a staggering amount of money and the problem is getting exponentially worse as hackers refine their strategies, and people use the web even more. Back in 2017 it was reported to ‘just’ be $8.3 million - meaning an increase of 758% to 2020!
With all this data floating around you’d think that governments would be attempting to do something to protect children. And I guess you could say that they have tried: introducing minimum age requirements, improved legislation on advertising, forcing companies to improve the protection of young people. And yet the numbers speak for themselves - it’s not working.
Now I won’t lie and say that I spent all my free time swinging in the trees and rolling in the mud, but children these are spending unfathomable amounts of time on the internet. Ofcom reports upto almost 4 hours of screen time per day.
By the laws of the internet, the more time they’re online then the more chances of getting scammed. This is also reflected in the types of scams they are falling victim to. Social media and online shopping scams being the 2 most common (Investopedia Reports - common scams targeted at teens).
Hackers are taking advantage of childrens core reasons to use the internet and then targeting them directly. Social media is a new technology that even most adults don’t fully understand the power of yet. This means children are left in the dark when it comes to protection.
We can blatantly see what happens when children are not taught about scamming. This is not a simple case of “woops I lost my Club Penguin account”. We’re talking about lives being ruined, parents losing tens of thousands of dollars, identity theft and children being blackmailed.
Now you’re probably wondering, okay, now what? Children are notoriously tricky to teach things they do not care about.
Earlier this year, schools in the UK ran a trial to teach mindfulness to pupils in order to tackle the very real crisis of child mental health. And somewhat surprisingly to the researchers, the children reported seeing no improvements.
It goes to show that not every method will work, and realistically different ways of teaching work for different people. But I hope you can agree with me, that if we taught kids from a young age what scamming is, and most importantly how to be aware and catch scams early, it would have a positive shock wave across the entire general public.
We can’t leave the whole task to corporations and the government. 10 minutes of learning a month could be the difference in avoiding a scam that would have cost us our life’s savings later in life.
I believe the best way to learn - for both adults and children - is by example. Too many articles are out there that describe a scam without showing us what it actually is we’re looking out for.
Now I’m not going to sit here and do the same. If you want to see some examples of real phishing scams then I built a free tool which acts as a simulated email inbox.
Over the years I’ve collected phishing scams, from my own inbox and from other people online. And to make it just that tiny bit more fun (no-one wants to revise after 5pm on a weekday..) it’s gamified with the goal of catching every scam email. But most importantly it’s free - so you have nothing to lose! - www.phishmeifyoucan.com.
Now this is obviously geared towards adults but I believe a similar tool aimed at children could prove invaluable. Children love competition and games.
In small doses, semi periodically, we can open their minds to what a scam is. Then maybe next time they are the millionth visitor on a website they won’t bat an eyelid…