How to Teach Kids About Phishing and Online Scams

young girl and mom using laptop together

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We live in a digital and always-online world where kids are increasingly using a variety of devices not only for entertainment and social connection but also for schoolwork, research, and college applications. Plus, the age at which kids begin using technology is getting younger and younger.

In fact, Pew Research Center reports that 60% of parents said that their kids began engaging with smart devices before the age of 5 while one-third indicate their child's online activity began before age 2. Consequently, it's never too early to talk to your kids about how to use devices safely.

Not only do they need to know how to use the Internet, apps, and social media safely, but they also need to know how to identify when people are trying to take advantage of them or get personal information—which most often occurs through phishing and online scams.

Here's what you need to know about phishing and online scams, including how to keep your kids safe from people trying to exploit or manipulate them online.

What Is Phishing?

Phishing occurs when a person sends a fake text, email, or pop-up message to get people to share their personal information, passwords, or financial information. Once they have this information, these criminals use the information gathered to commit identity theft or to steal money.

Brian Sampsel, VP of Analytics

Usually, the individual trying to obtain the information is doing so under the illusion of a legitimate need.

— Brian Sampsel, VP of Analytics

"Usually, the individual trying to obtain the information is doing so under the illusion of a legitimate need," explains Brian Sampsel, vice president of analytics for a cybersecurity firm in Columbus, Ohio and father of two. "They try to look like they are from a reputable organization—maybe even one you have a relationship with. This could be someone requesting a bank account number, or wanting to know your physical address, or asking for a password that you would know." 

According to a study published by the online background check service, Social Catfish, online scams and phishing in the U.S. are increasing at an alarming rate, especially those involving children. In fact, the researchers discovered that scams involving kids and teens specifically increased by 156% from 2017 to 2020. This increase in attacks targeting young people is greater than those directed at the elderly.

These bad actors on the internet usually send emails trying to get people to click on a link or perform an action that will allow them to obtain some kind of data like passwords or credit card information, says Steve Horn, father of three and the engineering director for Willow Tree, a company specializing in building and designing digital products.

How to Recognize Phishing and Online Scams

When it comes to recognizing a phishing email or online scam, it takes practice and knowing what you are looking for. To start, remind yourself and your kids that legitimate organizations won’t call, email, or text to ask for your personal information, like a Social Security number, account number, or credit card number.

"It is hard," says Sampsel. "Those individuals doing the phishing and scams are often good at what they do. We need to realize that they are professionals at phishing, and are always looking to get better."

If you or your child receive an email or message that you didn’t expect, especially if it is offering you something valuable, you should ignore it, suggests Sampsel. If you aren’t expecting an email from your bank, but it looks like they sent you one, then it probably isn’t from them and you should just delete the email. 

"If you think the email might be legitimate but aren’t sure, go directly to the site but don't click on any links in the email," Sampsel says. "I recently received an email from an investing site I use. They needed to validate some of my information and wanted a copy of my driver’s license...I went directly to their site, logged in, and it was requesting the same information, so I provided it there. If I had gone to the site, but they didn’t request that information, then that would have told me the email was a scam."

Red Flags to Watch Out For

  • Uses threatening or urgent language
  • Urges you to respond right away
  • Requests private or personal information
  • Asks you to update your account information
  • Makes threats like closing your account
  • Contains suspicious attachments
  • Urges you to click on a link
  • Appears too good to be true
  • Contains information you weren't expecting

How to Help Your Child Spot Phishing and Scams

According to Horn, one of the best ways to help your kids recognize phishing or online scams is to show them examples. Talk to them about what to look for in an email or message and ask them to show you when they receive information that is scary or doesn't make sense.

Steve Horn, Engineering Director

[In a phishing email] usually something will look 'off.' Typically, the request is urgent and will commonly have misspellings. Plus, the domain names of the email can be off.

— Steve Horn, Engineering Director

"[In a phishing email] usually something will look 'off,'" says Horn. "Typically, the request is urgent and will commonly have misspellings. Plus, the domain names of the email can be off."

Getting a phishing email or text can be confusing and scary for kids especially if they think something bad will happen if they do not act on the message right away. For this reason, you need to teach them how to respond in a calm way. Stress to them that they need to take their time, says Sampsel.

"[They] may feel like that email or text needs to be addressed right away, but it doesn’t," he adds. "Trust your feelings. If you have any doubt or question at all, just wait, or ignore it."

Sampsel also tells his kids that if they weren’t expecting it, it is probably junk. In other words, people who engage in phishing will send receipts for things you didn't purchase or updates on deliveries of things you did not order.

"We teach our children to be cautious when crossing the street, or talking to strangers," Sampsel adds. "We need to take the same posture with their online lives. There are a lot of benefits to being online like learning new things and talking to our friends and playing games, but there are dangers, too." 

Safeguards Parents Can Try

Keeping your kids safe from phishing expeditions and online scams starts with a conversation. In fact, a simple discussion can help make your kids aware of the potential risks online. It also is an opportunity to discuss boundaries and limits with your kids.

"Just because your child has a device, it shouldn’t mean that they can do anything they want with it," Sampsel says. "Our children can’t download apps on their phones unless we enter a password. Having a device does not mean they have complete access to everything that device can do."

You also need to advise your kids to be cautious about opening any attachments or downloading any files from emails that they receive, regardless of who sent them. These unexpected files may contain viruses or malware that can harm their device or invade their privacy.

Cybersecurity experts like Sampsel and Horn also advise parents to look for "teachable moments," so if you get a phishing message, show it to your kids. Seeing an actual phishing message or email can help your kids recognize potential online scams and help them understand that the messages or emails they receive aren't always what they seem. 

"There also are a number of sites that evaluate apps and other types of media for appropriateness," Sampsel adds. "If one of our children wants to download something and we haven’t heard of it, we check one of these. Common Sense Media is one. Plugged In is another."

Make sure you also talk to your kids about protecting their personal information. They should not share passwords, account information, their address, or their birthday. Tell them to also watch out for free stuff like free games, ring tones, and even online surveys, and advise them not to download anything until they have either talked to you or know that it is from a trusted source.

"Our daughter wanted to download a game the other day," shares Sampsel. "It looked benign but had an age rating higher than we would have expected. We checked it out on Common Sense and it said the chat feature was sometimes used by adults trying to develop relationships with kids, so our daughter doesn’t get to play that game."

Safety Tips

  • Talk about internet safety and develop an online safety plan. 
  • Establish clear rules and teach kids how to spot red flags.
  • Supervise young kids when they use the internet.
  • Review games, apps, and social media sites before your kids download them.
  • Adjust privacy settings and use parental controls when available.
  • Tell kids not to share personal information.
  • Be aware of potential signs of abuse or cyberbullying.
  • Encourage kids to tell a parent or other trusted adult if something suspicious happens.

A Word From Verywell

Parenting has never been an easy undertaking, but now that we live in a digital world it can feel even more challenging. After all, you need to monitor screen time and teach them how to stay safe. But if you are intentional about teaching your kids about technology and how people can exploit it, it will feel a lot more manageable.

For younger children, supervise their online activity and model the things you want to see from them. And for older kids, show them examples of phishing and online scams and explain how they can stay safe. Also, look for teachable moments that you can share with your kids. The key is to empower your kids to make good choices while online and to encourage them to keep you informed of things that look suspicious.

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5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pew Research Center. Children's engagement with digital devices, screen time.

  2. Social Catfish. State of the internet scams 2021 study.

  3. Federal Trade Commission. How to avoid a scam.

  4. Federal Trade Commission. How to recognize and avoid phishing scams.

  5. U.S. Department of Justice. Keeping children safe online.

Additional Reading