Stop, think, click — online safety

The news has been dominated by stories about the dangers of the Internet. Just in recent days, we have heard of major banks losing the personal information of hundreds of thousands of account holders, a congressman’s indiscretions on a social networking Web site, hackers accessing thousands of accounts at a major retailer, and many other mass data breaches that may result in wholesale identity theft. Individuals are still falling prey to the infamous “Nigerian 419” scams, sending money to pay the “fees and taxes” in order to receive unimaginable riches from the Nigerian oil minister’s widow. Many people are duped into giving money (or credit card data) to crooks who have no intention of ever delivering the purported merchandise. We constantly hear of children who have become the victims of cyber-bullying, where social network sites or chat rooms are utilized. Russian crooks, often teenagers, continue to spread rogue antivirus software in order to extort money from victims, and then sell the credit card information to other crooks. We plead that something ought to be done about these and the other endemic online scams; once again, the federal government has launched a Web site to educate us such that we may become resistant to such scams and other Internet threats, OnGuardOnline.gov.

According to the site, it “provides practical tips from the federal government and the technology industry to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information.” The Web site is maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with the assistance of a substantial public/private partnership. Among the federal agencies and private organizations that contribute material to the Web site are the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, Internal Revenue Service, Securities and Exchange Commission, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Better Business Bureau, National Crime Prevention Council and several other agencies and organizations. The extensive resources of these agencies and organizations have created and compiled some excellent online safety resources for the use of children, adults, and families.

This Web site consists of three major sections: Topics, Games, and Videos. The Topics section consists of over two dozen discreet subjects, each hyperlinked to a detailed explanation of that subject.

Many kids and adults like playing games, and the Games section has 13 games. The games are designed to “test your cyber smarts … on everything from spam and spyware to phishing and file-sharing.” I tried several of the online games, and they are both cute and educational. The games are mostly of the interactive question and answer variety. If correct answers are chosen, the game displays some congratulatory words, as well as an enhanced explanation; if an incorrect answer is picked, the reasons are given why the answer is wrong, and the correct response is then displayed. At the end of each game, a final score is displayed along with links for additional information. Games cover a variety of topics including P2P (Peer to Peer) file sharing, ID theft, spyware, cybercrime, and other contemporary cyber safety subjects. Users should play each of these games and learn from them. Each game only takes a minute or two to play, but they are loaded with useful and beneficial information. In “Invasion of the Wireless Hackers,” the player must protect his Wi-Fi network from evil hackers by correctly answering questions about wireless security. A correct answer keeps the evil hackers away from the computer, but incorrect answers, along with some creepy music, bring the hackers closer and closer to the computer until it is taken over. In “Invest Quest,” the player spins and advances by successfully answering questions about online investing safety. Several times during the game, a window pops up warning the player that a scammer is trying to steal money, which can be protected by answering the question correctly; otherwise the winnings in a piggy bank may be stolen. By playing these fun games, the user can learn valuable lessons about computing safety and security. The games are appropriate for both children and adults, and could be a healthy family activity. For those with Web sites or blogs, the code for each of the games can be obtained by clicking the “Grab this Game” button, which will display a few lines of code. This code can then be copied and pasted into the blog or on the Web site, allowing others to play the games.

The videos available on OnGuardOnline.gov cover a variety of subjects, and are clearly geared to different age levels. Five of the videos are “Net Cetera Videos” (also available on YouTube) and are intended to be viewed by children (as well as parents), and cover “... online risks, including sharing too much information, scams, viruses, P2P file-sharing, and cyberbullying.” Another video is intended to “help parents start a conversation with their kids about online safety, and find resources to help them.”

The three “Phishy Videos” are “60-second spots (that) expose phishing scams where online fraudsters use e-mail, pop-ups, or text messages to get your personal and financial information by showing what phishing would look like offline.” All of these videos may be explicitly forwarded, posted, or linked from other Web sites and blogs.

OnGuardOnline.gov is an excellent Web site that provides a wealth of information for parents and children in a fun and pleasant way. It would be most appropriate for families to play the games and watch the videos together. While some of the subjects are intended to help us protect our fiscal health, the most valuable subjects can help us protect our most valuable assets, our children.

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