Making Halloween less cyber-scary for kids

Tomas Foltyn, security writer at ESET explains how can we help kids avoid security horrors and stay safe from rogue online “neighbors” at Halloween and thereafter?

It’s that time of year again when children, decked out in special costumes, roam the streets and ask for treats from neighbors. The online world, too, is inhabited by creatures that aren’t what they seem to be and wolves in sheep’s (or grandma’s) clothing can be up to something seriously mean. Its consequences can hurt long after the kids – with the dutiful help of their parents – have eaten all their stashes of candy. Let’s shed light on some of the ways in which we can help them stay safe on the Internet, which itself is often a sweet spot for crooks.

#1 Throwing Captain Hook overboard
Kids flock to gaming and social sites and forums where, naturally, registration is required. After, hopefully, you helped them set up their accounts with strong and unique passwords – or, even better, passphrases, which on top of other benefits are easier to remember – teach them to be careful where they input those credentials. Perhaps you can even leverage “teaching moments” and instill some cyber-savvy into them by highlighting examples of phishing messages.

After all, every kid is likely to face the baits and hooks of phishing messages sooner or later, with such scams commonly targeting gamers and social media users. That’s when your guidance will pay Brobdingnagian dividends – as long as you taught them to know better, that is.

Either way, no matter how strong and unique, a password still represents only a single barrier between an account and an attacker. Wherever possible, then, make sure they pair it with another authentication factor.

#2 Turning out the lights
When the children trick-or-treat on a dark Halloween or “treat” themselves to a spooky story under a blanket, they may want to turn their mobiles into flashlights, perhaps with the help of a special widget. Recent ESET research showed, however, that even such an innocuously-looking tool can actually be up to some serious nastiness.

Indeed, it pays to be clear-eyed about the potential security and privacy implications of mobile apps in general. Even if not outright malicious, many of them – including those specifically geared towards children – can engage in activities, such as tracking and behavioral advertising, that go well beyond what a game or an educational app would be expected to do.

Downloading apps only from official storefronts – and being mindful of what kind of permissions any given app is requesting – will go a long way towards shielding children from invasive collection of personal information. If something as simple as a game needs access to messages, calls, and/or location information, it’s best to look elsewhere.

#3 Free, except when it isn’t
For kids (although not necessarily only for kids), fun trumps consequence. Besides, who doesn’t love freebies? However, some of those flashing adverts for free games and ring tones, including those with a Halloween theme, can hide malware.

Besides visiting malicious links, opening malware-laden attachments and engaging (knowingly or not) in online piracy, clicking on a malicious advert is a common way in which kids can inadvertently compromise their computers or smartphones with harmful software.

Reputable security software that features several layers of protection and receives frequent automatic updates is an easy and effective way to help protect your kids and entire family from the lures and snares of the Internet.

#4 Use and abuse
With a great deal of our lives – and when it comes to our kids’ lives, even more so – taking place on social media, it’s never a bad time to remind them of how to make the best use of these platforms. Applying strict privacy settings, being very prudent about sharing private information, staying away from strangers, and realizing that everything they do online leaves a digital footprint – all of that provides a good basis for social interaction.

In addition, online relationships, especially on social platforms and when using messaging services, can also involve various forms of abuse that often victimize children and are, in many cases, fueled by the Internet’s anonymity.

Cyberbullying, for example, is all too real and commonplace. It’s important to spot and recognize the signs of cyberbullying and, by having a relationship of trust with your children, ensure that they reach out to you when they become the victim of – or when they witness – such abuse. Social media sites also commonly provide options to block or report users.

#5 Trust but verify 
Let’s face it: tweens and especially teens can often be surprisingly skilled – well, compared to their parents, anyway – at concealing their online activities. Which is where parental control tools can help. Often integrated into comprehensive security software, such tools can monitor what one’s offspring are up to online and can prevent them from wandering into the Internet’s seedier nooks and crannies. Besides, all major operating systems, both computer and mobile, allow nowadays for some level of parental control.

All of this should strike a chord with many parents, as an ESET survey found that nearly nine out of ten parents are worried about what their children can access online. Somewhat paradoxically, however, most respondents to that survey hadn’t actually addressed their own concerns. That said, let’s not forget about the need to talk to children about their use of the Internet in the first place.

Make no mistake, however: those who are assumed to know better shouldn’t let down their guard, either. Halloween is one of those special days that prompt cyber-crooks to ramp up their efforts and launch specially-themed campaigns that target grown-ups, too. It turns out, then, that we all have some homework to do, even when it’s actually a day of celebration.