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The Student News Site of Fluvanna County High School

The Fluco Beat

The Student News Site of Fluvanna County High School

The Fluco Beat

Kessler Potter
Image created with Bing AI Image Creator. Image courtesy of Kessler Potter.

7 Tips for Online Safety, Part 2

The pros of the internet are many, whether it’s using it to contact distant relatives or old friends, learn new skills or quickly review old ones, and scroll away the hours watching funny cat videos. Yet it has a dark side, allowing and promoting negative deeds including exploitation and other illegal activities. Some criminals have become skilled at tricking internet users into believing that they are someone else, then using their skills to blackmail, threaten, and extort people, even teens and children.

However, internet crimes are not all as dark and serious as blackmail and extortion. They can be as simple as maliciously causing a computer to malfunction or temporarily removing computer data. Cybercrimes cover a broad spectrum of crimes, from fraud to extortion, but they all have the common denominator of being committed by an online presence. Sometimes cybercrimes are expertly concealed and it is tricky to realize that you have been a victim until weeks or months after the attack.

Here are seven common internet crimes and how to protect yourself from them.

1. Online Shopping Fraud
This form of fraud that has become more popular since the COVID-19 pandemic. Online shopping fraud consists of fake companies that offer products and services to internet users, usually those who frequent apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, or TikTok. Targeted advertisements direct users to purchase products that range from skincare products to clothes, and from to apps and games. Often, the sites that users are directed to claim that they are selling the products at a greatly discounted price.

According to Social Catfish, a website that uses reverse search technology to prevent online scams, scammers who set up online shops often request payment and then either simply pocket the money or steal the credit card information that was entered.

To protect yourself from this kind of online scam, check for secure URLs (web page addresses) that do not have any misspellings or seemingly random strings of letters and numbers. In addition, Central Bank suggests using a credit card for online purchases whenever possible. This limits the information that scammers can receive from your purchase and gives you the option to cancel the card and avoid being charged if you get scammed. Be aware of ads for products or services that seem too cheap or too good to be true, because they frequently aren’t. Finally, research the site before making a purchase. For example, you type in “[the name of the company] reviews” in your search bar. If you can’t find anything about the site online, or if the reviews are negative, it may be that it isn’t a legitimate retailer and you should beware of purchasing from it.

2. Identity Theft
Identity theft is a common online crime that is made easier and more common by the proliferation of information that is available online. It is much easier to pretend to be someone else when they have a plethora of personal information accessible with only a few swipes. With as simple information as your birth date, the name of your kids or pets, or anything else that seems innocuous when you first post it, identity thieves can hack into your personal accounts and steal important information.

Identity theft can take many forms, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC states that, “identity theft is when someone uses your personal or financial information without your permission.” Thieves can then use your information to complete actions as varied as taking out credit cards in your name, using your health insurance to get medical care, stealing your tax refund, or even pretending to be you if they are arrested.

For a crime as serious as identity theft, it is rather easy to protect yourself against the loss of your information. Make your social media accounts private, avoid posting anything that you might use as a password, and avoid questionnaires that ask questions such as “Who was your first-grade teacher? What was your childhood address? What was the name of your first pet?” The answers to all of these questions are often used as security codes or passwords. By refusing to participate in the “surveys,” you are protecting yourself and your family from the possibility of trouble in the future.

In addition, many companies offer multi-factor verification as extra protection for your account. Multi-factor verification (or authentication) is when a user is required to enter a username, password, and then an extra code. This code is often sent to the provided email address or phone number. MFA (multi-factor authentication) can also require a user to answer a security question or even use fingerprint verification. This extra security makes it harder for hackers to find their way into your account, protecting your identity and your finances.

Three: Phishing Scams
Phishing scams are extremely common online scams. They consist of receiving a text message or email from what appears to be a trusted source. Perhaps it is your internet provider, bank, or other company that you regularly receive information from. The message claims that something is wrong, and entreats you to enter your information to prove that you are who you say you are. Oftentimes this information includes items such as your Social Security number, address, or other identifier. Cybercriminals then use this information to commit identity theft and gain access to your account.

As with identity theft, it is easy to add a layer of protection against these kinds of cybercrimes. First, be aware of the phone number or email address that the message is sent from. If the message is from a legitimate email address, it will not have strings of seemingly random numbers and letters attached to it. Also, be aware of text messages with offers that seem too good to be true or are asking for your information. Legitimate businesses will not require you to confirm any information over the phone. Additionally, be aware of generic greetings and issues that stem from billing problems. If you are not sure if a request is legitimate, reach out to the company’s customer service hotline and they will be able to confirm or deny if the request is coming from their company.

Four: Child Exploitation (aka Sextortion or Blackmail)
Cybercrimes are not limited to the fairly benign crimes of identity theft, phishing, or fraud. These cybercrimes, although malicious in nature, are fairly easy to recover from. Credit cards can be canceled, companies contacted, emails deleted. Other cybercrimes have long-lasting mental, social, and emotional effects. One of these cybercrimes is child exploitation.

Child exploitation occurs when someone under the age of 18 is coerced into sending explicit images online. This crime is also called “sextortion” and is essentially blackmail but with images of minors. It is often difficult for victims of sextortion to realize that they are being manipulated because they believe that they are interacting with someone who is their own age. After they have earned the child’s trust, the predator will ask for sexually explicit images. The victim will send them, believing that they are sending them to someone their own age. Instead, the predator will hold the images as blackmail and coerce the victim into sending money to them.

Since these cybercriminals are very good at acting and pretending to be someone they aren’t, it is important to verify the identity of the people you interact with on social media. The easiest way to do this is to limit your social media interactions to people that you know in person, but it can also be achieved by making your profile private. Additionally, do not send explicit images over social media. Even if the person receiving them will not use them for blackmail purposes, apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok keep all messages sent on the app on a private server. This ensures that all messages will always be able to be revived, even ones with images you do not want people to see.

While it is important to keep yourself safe, it is also important to make sure that your friends are safe. Cybercrimes like sextortion and child exploitation have mental and emotional effects that last for years. If one of your friends is not displaying their usual behavior, check in on them. If they have been happily talking about a person that they met online and have been messaging with frequently, check and make sure that they are not making your friend uncomfortable. If you believe that your friend is in danger because of something that is happening to them on a social media app, reach out to an adult. The counselors at FCHS are equipped to help with a variety of issues. If you do not want to reach out to a counselor, talk to a trusted adult. Social media and online apps are amazing for meeting new people and forging new relationships, but they can also be dangerous places where unsavory characters lurk.

Five: Sexting
A crime that also includes sexually explicit images is often seen as a seemingly harmless message between partners, colloquially known as sexting. Sexting, as defined by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is the practice of “youth writing sexually explicit messages, taking sexually explicit photos of themselves or others in their peer group, and transmitting those photos and/or messages to their peers.” These messages and images are banned in Virginia, as they often fall under the banner of child pornography. That is a charge that carries a Class 6 felony charge and potential consequences that include up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $2500. These consequences are not worth the short thrill you get from sending these images. Even if they are just a joke or an image sent between partners, they have serious consequences that will haunt you in the adult world.

Six: Cyber Bullying
Bullying in classic pop culture usually follows one of two patterns. The bully is often either a jock, bullying the smaller, weaker nerd because he likes school, or a “mean girl” who makes snide comments about the new girl’s clothes. While these people do exist, the rise of the digital age has led to the rise of another bully: the cyber bully.

Cyberbullying can occur on any internet platform, from social media to text messaging to chat rooms. Cyberbullies can be anyone on the internet and are often people that would not be stereotypical bullies. Many who turn to online bullying feel safe in the anonymity that the internet provides. Since they can take steps to distance their “IRL” information (names, addresses, etc.) from the people they bully on the internet, they feel safer and think that they are less likely to be discovered. Although they can be discovered, it often takes more work than it does to stop a “classic” bully. While a bully in pop culture can be seen by an adult, cyberbullies often continue their torment until the victim does something about it. Unfortunately, some victims believe that the only way to get relief from cyberbullying is to commit suicide.

A study done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2022 discovered that young adolescents who are victims of cyberbullying are four times more likely to have suicidal thoughts. That is an extremely worrying statistic in a time where adolescents are online more than ever.

Social media has made it much easier for cyber bullying to occur. On Snapchat, one of the most popular apps for teens, messages disappear within 24 hours after opening. If a message had threatening information in it and a victim does nothing, that message vanishes into the ether. Additionally, the constant exposure to the internet ensures that a victim does not necessarily get a reprieve from the bullying. With stereotypical bullying, a victim could have “safe spaces,” such as a classroom, where a bully would be less likely to act. Victims of cyberbullying do not have that advantage. Cyber bullies can act at any time of day, leaving the victim with no escape.

Although it may seem impossible to escape cyberbullying, it is possible. If you are being bullied, go to a trusted adult. Save any threatening messages and show them to the adult. You can also take them to your counselor. If you believe a friend is being cyberbullied, talk to an adult or counselor. Since the cyberbully may or may not be someone in your community, it is important to get adults involved, since they are able to determine exactly who the cyber bully is.

For more information on cyberbullying, visit If you need someone to talk to, you can text “HOME” to 741741, the national Crisis Text Line. They have trained staff on the line to help with any crises, including bullying and suicidal thoughts.

Seven: Ransomware
Ransomware attacks are cyber attacks that shut down an organization’s access to its files, which often contain sensitive information. Ransomware attacks usually target companies and corporations over individuals, but they are still a cybercrime to be aware of. One recent ransomware attack that affected people living in Central Virginia was the attack on the Colonial Pipeline. This attack, perpetrated in early May, 2021, caused gas prices to skyrocket as the company was locked out of their computers and consumers worried that the supply would drop. Ransomware attacks can target anyone with a computer and result in sensitive data being held for ransom. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), ransomware attacks are more likely to target individuals with access to sensitive information, whether that information is related to the government, the private sector, or the healthcare system.

It is fairly simple to protect against ransomware attacks. CISA recommends that you update your browser and operating system whenever possible, as outdated technologies are the easiest targets. Additionally, back up your data onto a hard drive regularly, as that will ensure that you still have copies of any important information available, even with a ransomware attack. Finally, never open links or attachments in unsolicited emails or emails from unknown senders. These attachments are extremely likely to hold a virus that could lead to a ransomware situation or a phishing scam.

The internet is an amazing resource, a great way to meet new people, and a fantastic place to watch cute animal videos. Unfortunately, although much of the internet is devoted to legal activities, cybercrimes thrive in the dark corners. Cybercrimes range from the mostly benign to the traumatizing. However, all are fairly easy to prevent, if you do not share your personal information on the internet, limit those who can see your social media profiles, do not open suspicious emails, and are cautious when interacting with strangers on the internet. If you follow these tips, then you will be able to spend less time dealing with the messy aftermath of these crimes and more time watching cute and funny cat videos.

Visit the first article in this series: 7 Tips for Online Safety

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