I’ve invited Cassie Phillips from Secure Thoughts to write a post this week about protecting our kids’ identity online. It’s such an important topic for all of us, but especially our kids, and I’m glad to have help navigating the minefield that is keeping our kids’ information private online. Take it away Cassie!
We’ve all seen it before: children, sometimes less than 5 years old, flicking away on a tablet. Elementary school children use computers to assist their learning and replace old tools such as hand-made flashcards with colorful and stimulating computer programs. But some of these tools meant to aid our children are found online. Even still, as our kids get older, they have increasingly greater access to the many wonders and dangers of the net.
Most of us are familiar with the rise in identity theft, leading to all sorts of headaches from ruined credit to harassment. These problems are even more magnified for children, who not only run the risk of experiencing early financial trouble, but are considerably more vulnerable to the exploitation of malicious adults. So what can we do to keep our kids safe?
Need to Know Basis
Sharing personal information about our children online, such as posting photos, sharing information about where you live or where they go to school, is rarely a good idea. This doesn’t apply exclusively to children but is especially relevant because dangerous predators may be looking to “case” your child, specifically for details about how, when and where to find your child (and do them harm). If you must share anything about your child online, keep it to a minimum; stick with first names and only communicate with trusted parties.
It’s tempting to share every little event of our children’s growth on social media, but be aware of who is privy to those personal moments. If you’re using Facebook, be certain that only close friends are able to see your posts and check your privacy settings periodically to ensure nothing has changed.
Know Who’s Who and What’s What
Be aware of risk factors even among close family or friends. The FTC informs us that adults may steal a child’s identity in an attempt to “start over” with a new financial profile and identity, and they’re specifically talking about adults you know, not just strangers. Scary stuff. You can check your child’s credit score periodically using a free service, such as CreditKarma, to ensure nothing seems out of the ordinary.
Most of all, don’t share your child’s Social Security number unless it is absolutely necessary. Websites can be trickier than dealing with forms or persons directly, so if you’re ever unsure (even if the website appears to be legitimate, such as a .gov website), err on the side of caution. Most government websites have phone numbers you can call for assistance or offices you can visit rather than inputting information online. And, as always, when you’re uploading sensitive information online (such as your credit card) always look for the HTTPS in a site URL, or the image of a lock on your browser. That means your session is encrypted and no one can listen in.
Safeguard Your Machine—Get a VPN
Keeping a secure computer or mobile device is another valuable step in preventing your child’s identity from being compromised. Even if you decide not to share personal information, it may be irrelevant if someone decides to come steal it from you directly by hacking your device.
A great place to start is by securing your internet connection with a service known as a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Whether at home or on the go, a VPN service protects your internet connection by routing it through a server that not only encrypts your connection (that is, makes your communications to and from essentially unreadable), but it also prevents your device from being tracked and located.
Whenever you access web services, those services ask your device where it is (this is called your IP address). That information is very easy for hackers to access. But, if you’re using a VPN, the VPN’s IP will instead be shown, effectively concealing you (or your child’s) location. It’s a great way to keep creepers from stalking you or your children.
The encryption provided by a VPN will also prevent any outside parties from reading data you’re sending, so even if you’re signing your child up for some type of government program (and thus supplying all of their personal information), no one will be able to use information they intercept from your connection because it’s been safeguarded. There are a number of good VPNs on the market, such as ExpressVPN and IPVanish, so read these reviews to determine which option will be best for you.
In addition to a VPN, you’ll want to install an anti-virus software on your devices to protect yourself from malware. Most good anti-virus software is free. Panda Free Antivirus is one such service that you can install on your home computer and also on your mobile devices.
Most devices and services include parental controls (including your TV). It’s wise to use these services to limit where your children have access, particularly if they’re a bit younger (or prone to buying movies, TV shows or games without telling you). Read through all the settings carefully, and set them up so they work for your family’s preferences. Also, it may be too early for them to have their own social media accounts, so blocking access (at least till they get older) to specific social media websites through your device’s parental controls can save you a lot of headaches.
For your home computer, use a browser that values security such as Firefox. Mozilla, the company that develops Firefox, doesn’t operate for profit and so doesn’t tend to sell your info off in the way that Google or Microsoft do. There are also handy add-ons, such as FoxFilter, that assist in setting up parental controls that make sense. Google, Microsoft and Apple do still offer parental controls and plugins for their browsers if you prefer to use these options.
Education: The Front Lines
Despite your best efforts, it’s impossible to be everywhere at once. At some point, your child is going to be somewhere with the internet and without you. They should be able to enjoy the internet, but know how to do it safely. That’s why parental controls aren’t enough: You have to educate your kids so they know what to do when they aren’t being restricted.
Even with parental controls and password locks, kids are smart. They sometimes find ways around parental controls or guess the password and gain access to services you’d ordinarily restrict. When these forces come together, disaster can strike.
Explain that they can’t share their full names, home address, phone numbers, or any other personal information, and start at an early age. The more you talk about it, the more they’ll get it.
When you first introduce a child to the net, be sure to spend plenty of time working with and explaining how things work. Educate yourself on safety procedures for using the net and learn what’s safe and what’s not.
The Bottom Line
Like it or not, the internet is here to stay, and it’s not always a safe place. But if you’re willing to follow these simple guidelines, the internet can be an endless trove of knowledge and learning for both you and your children… without posing a risk to anyone’s identity.