8 Online Scams Targeting Young Children in The United States

three children with smart phones

You may be familiar with the prevalence of scams targeting older adults in the United States, but you also need to be aware that young American children are also at risk of falling victim to online scams. In today's digital age, children are heavily engaged in social media platforms such as Tiktok, Snapchat, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter), and Facebook from a very young age. While your children may be adept at navigating technology, they likely lack the critical thinking skills necessary to identify and avoid online scams.

So, as a parent of a young child or children in the US, you need to take proactive steps to educate yourself and your kids about online threats in order to safeguard your personal information.

Statistics of Online Scams Targeting Kids in the US

  • The United States is at the forefront of online scam victimization, with children and teenagers being the fastest-growing targets.
  • When minors and teens fall victim to online scams, they often experience feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and helplessness. Tragically, some victims have resorted to self-harm and even suicide, with at least 20 suicides linked to such cases, as reported by the FBI.
  • According to FBI detectives, scammers who target young children are typically located outside of the U.S., particularly in West African countries like Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, as well as Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines.
  • A recent report from the FBI highlighted a rise in financially motivated "sextortion" scams, primarily aimed at young boys.
  • In 2021, individuals under the age of 20 lost a staggering $101.4 million to online scams, as revealed by a study conducted by cybersecurity startup Social Catfish. 
  • The total amount of money lost by teenage victims of online scams skyrocketed by nearly 2,500% between 2017 and 2022, reaching a shocking $210 million in losses for victims under the age of 20 in 2022 alone.
The alarming rate at which young children are falling victim to online scams is a growing concern. As a parent, you need to prioritize the safety of your children while they are online. Have open and honest discussions with your children about online safety in order to prevent them from becoming victims of scams and adding to the statistics.

Why Are Scammers Targeting Young Children?

Cybercriminals are actively targeting children online in order to obtain their personal information. These criminals have discovered that children can serve as a gateway to accessing their parents' personal information, and are constantly seeking ways to expose names, addresses, phone numbers, credit card details, and Social Security numbers. 

According to a report by the Washington Post, young children possess something that is highly valuable to scammers - their online accounts. Girard Kelly, the head of privacy at Common Sense Media, emphasizes that scammers are eager to gain access to children's social networks in order to send messages from their accounts and ultimately reach the child's parents, teachers, or other family members.

8 Online Scams Targeting Young Children in The U.S.

1. Phony online contests and Giveaways

Children are frequently enticed by the allure of complimentary gifts or prizes offered in online contests and giveaways. Unfortunately, many of these competitions are actually fraudulent schemes aimed at extracting personal information or installing malicious software on devices. Educate your children on the importance of exercising caution and skepticism when participating in online contests.

Moreover, make your children understand that sharing personal information, such as their favorite book, mother's maiden name, or pet's name, can make them vulnerable to hacking in the future. This information can be used by scammers to gain unauthorized access to accounts that use these details for security authentication.

2. InstaScam

Scammers have shifted their focus once again. While the elderly and uninformed were previously common targets, younger social media users must now also remain vigilant to avoid becoming victims. One particular scam, known as Instascam, is gaining attention as it targets users of the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram. 

Instascammers utilize the comments section of photos to promote fake giveaways and get-rich-quick schemes. By associating these scams with profiles of well-known brands or celebrities, unsuspecting individuals, especially children, may be easily deceived. Therefore, you need to educate your children that celebrities typically do not engage in commenting on their photos on Instagram.

3. Catphishing

Catfishing, also known as catphishing, is a deceptive online scheme in which a criminal creates a false identity to manipulate unsuspecting victims into forming a relationship or falling for a fraudulent scheme. This type of scam is particularly alarming as it involves a fraudster posing as someone else in order to exploit your child for financial gain or personal information.

The perpetrator typically initiates contact with your child through social media or messaging platforms, pretending to be someone in need of assistance or seeking companionship. This deceitful tactic can lead to devastating consequences for both you and your child.

4. Online Gaming Scams

Numerous online games and mobile applications provide the option for in-game purchases. Children may not grasp the concept of spending actual money within a virtual environment. With just one click, they can make significant unauthorized purchases and inadvertently disclose their parents' credit card details.

If you've got little ones running around, chances are you're familiar with the popular online games like Roblox and Fortnite. But what you might not realize is how many scammers are out there using these games to target kids and get their hands on sensitive info from your family. These scams aren't just a threat to your personal stuff like usernames, passwords, and credit card numbers - they could also put your work data at risk if you're using the same device, network, or passwords for your job.

According to a Forbes article, kids were seeing ads on YouTube that seemed legit, but actually led them to sketchy websites promising free game currency. In one sneaky move, a scammer convinced a child to download an app on their parent's phone, which turned out to be a screen mirroring app. The scammer then told the child which apps to open, and managed to snag their bank account info and other sensitive details right off the screen.

If your kids are playing games on the same device you use for work, there's a chance that malware could sneak its way in, giving hackers a backdoor into your professional accounts. So keep an eye out for any shady stuff happening while your little gamers are at play - you never know who might be trying to sneak in and cause some trouble.

5. Online Quiz Scams

Online quizzes, which may seem harmless at first glance, can actually be used as a means to collect personal data from children. These quizzes often ask for information such as birthdays, pets' names, street names, favorite shows, or best friends. This information can then be used by malicious individuals as passwords or answers to security questions, allowing them to gain access to your child's accounts.

In some cases, scammers hack into children's social media accounts and send malware links to the friends of the hacked account holder, disguising them as quiz invitations. To safeguard your personal information, as well as that of your children, it is crucial to not only maintain strong passwords and utilize multi-factor authentication but also to educate your children on the importance of avoiding online quizzes altogether or providing false information when prompted.

6. Pop-Up Scams

A warning message displays on your computer screen, warns you of a potential security threat, and advises you to contact a specified phone number for assistance. Scammers commonly use pop-up messages to deceive individuals into paying for unnecessary tech support or services using gift cards, cash-reload cards, or wire transfers. 

Teach your young children about the risks associated with clicking on pop-ups, as doing so could result in the installation of malware or spyware on their devices. This malicious software can capture sensitive information such as passwords and credit card numbers. Additionally, instruct your children not to interact with pop-ups, refrain from calling the provided number, and avoid sharing personal or payment information. 

Furthermore, use antivirus software to routinely scan your child's computer for malware, and conduct an immediate scan if a suspicious pop-up appears.

7. Phishing Texts

Scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, making their messages appear more authentic than ever before. This is concerning enough when the recipient is an adult, but even more so when it involves a child. Fake text messages pretending to be from reputable accounts or websites, like social media or gaming platforms, can create a sense of urgency. 

These messages often request children to verify their password, user data, or payment card information, or include links that install spyware on the user's phone. As parent, it is important to educate your children about the dangers of these scams and to monitor their online activities closely.

8. Sextortion Scams

The sextortion scam is a serious issue that's on the rise, especially when it comes to targeting minors. Between October 2021 and March 2023, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations received over 13,000 reports of online financial sextortion involving minors. Shockingly, there were at least 12,600 victims, mostly boys, and tragically, it led to at least 20 suicides.

These scammers are ruthless - they pressure minors into sharing explicit images or videos of themselves by pretending to be someone their age looking to start a relationship or offering something for free. They might even claim to already have a compromising photo or video, or secretly record the victim. Then, they threaten to share these images online unless they get paid. It's a scary situation that's unfortunately becoming more common.

"We’ve seen an alarming increase in financial sextortion schemes targeting children not only in the Bay Area, but across the country. Parents, educators, and caregivers need to be aware of this increasingly urgent threat and empower victims to come forward," says FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Tripp.

On December 1, 2022, at midnight, Walker Montgomery, 16, received a message on Instagram from a seemingly friendly individual with mutual friends. The conversation initially revolved around school and football, but took a dark turn when they video-chatted. It soon became apparent that the girl was not who she claimed to be, and the individual turned out to be a scammer. Threatening to distribute the video to everyone unless Walker paid $1,000, the scammer pushed him to his breaking point. Tragically, Walker felt he had no other option but to end his own life. Read the full story on New York Post.

Protect your children

Online scams can result in synthetic identity fraud, where scammers mix a person's real information with fake details to create a new identity for fraudulent purposes. This can lead to issues like child identity theft, which may not be discovered until the child is older and tries to apply for credit. In fact, about one in 50 kids in the U.S. are affected by this type of theft.

Talk to your kids about these scams, even though you can't watch them every minute of the day. You can still take steps to keep them safe. Encourage them not to accept friend requests from strangers and to be cautious of "celebrity" profiles, as many of them are fake. Also, remind them never to share personal information like account numbers or Social Security numbers with anyone they don't know.

As your kids grow older and become more savvy about using the internet and their devices safely, they can start taking on more responsibility for their digital actions. Setting clear rules about device usage, what's okay to do online, and what to watch out for can help them stay safe and secure.
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