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Q. Considering the uncertainty of our kids attending classrooms or online classes; what advice may BBB provide for their protection?

A. Several school districts may be picking up where they left off in March when many schools in the country suddenly shut down due to concerns over coronavirus. Now, as we approach the beginning of the school year, teachers, administrators and families are adapting to an unusual first day of school, and many schools have a focus on online learning. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) encourages everyone to stay safe while online and avoid being easy targets for online scammers.

 

Parents: Be careful

Creating accounts on websites without permission: Social media sites are ripe with strangers with intentions that may be quite different than yours. Many sites are designed to collect and sell unauthorized user details and behaviors to advertisers looking to engage in targeted marketing. When creating an account, some kids may falsely create a birth date to meet the minimum age requirement. Know what your child is doing online, and keep track of the social media sites and accounts to which they have access.

Contests and giveaways: Contests and giveaways often collect a hefty amount of personal information on their entry forms. Many are thinly disguised ways of collecting personal or financial information that could lead to identity theft. Make sure your child doesn't have access to banking or credit card information, and supervise the filling out of any forms.

Phishing: Adults are not the only ones who receive spam and junk mail. Kids often get junk mail, and since they don't have much online experience, are more likely to be susceptible to click on links and answer questions they probably shouldn't. While some emails may be legitimate, the last thing parents want, or need, is a $500 bill from a fraudulent website where a purchase may have been made- or worse, giving up personal information that can be tracked back to your home.

Understand apps: Short for "applications," apps are downloaded software that operates on various devices, such as smart phones. However, certain apps might collect and share personal information about your child, or target your child with ads. Even free apps may include paid features, and children may not understand that some apps or game features cost money, since they were labeled as free to download. They may click on these so-called free games and end up costing parents or guardians a hefty bill at the end of the month.

File sharing sites: Many websites allow children to download free media. What they may not know is these sites often come with the risk of downloading a virus, allowing identity thieves to access the gaming device, personal computer or even cell phone that's being used. From there, the cyber thief can track financial transactions, physical location or even tap into the household Wi-Fi without anyone knowing it.

 

Teachers and administrators:

Videoconferencing tools: Just like businesses, make certain the online software used to deliver lectures, classroom work and other online interactions is secure. The days of Zoom Bombing, phishing and other forms of cyber-criminal activity aren't over.

Evaluate and update cybersecurity plans: The sudden shut down of in person activities left many scrambling to change course in creating and delivering a curriculum. Now is the time for educators to create a plan to notify students, faculty and staff should there be a data breach or security problem once classes are back in session.

Keep a clean machine and update devices that connect to the internet: Backing up critical lesson plans, personal information and assignments is the best defense against viruses, malware and other online threats. The only way to do this is to stay up to date on the most current software to protect against them.

 

Tips on how to manage online privacy for the family:

Know about Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU). CARU's self-regulatory program provides detailed guidance to children's advertisers on how to deal sensitively and honestly with children's issues. These guidelines include, but go beyond, the issues of truthfulness and accuracy to consider the uniquely impressionable and vulnerable child audience.

Know about COPPA. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act , www.ftc.org protects personal information of children under the age of 13 on websites and online services—including apps. COPPA requires those sites and services to notify parents and get their approval before they collect, use or disclose a child's personal information. However, if your nine-year old tells Instagram they are 13 (the age requirement to use the app), he or she won't be protected by this law.

Know about FOSI. The Family Online Safety Institute brings an international perspective to the potential risks, and harms as well as the rewards of our online lives. The Good Digital Parenting web portal, www.fosi.org is a great resource for families looking to educate online safety measures in the Internet age.

Read privacy policies together and understand privacy settings. Parents can have their children read the privacy policies and terms of use of any apps they want to use. There might be a little grumbling that the policies "are too long" or that "it takes too much time," remind them of the importance of knowing what they are signing up for and insist that they are read. Then, take time to learn and understand the privacy settings on each of the apps and games. Less is more when it comes to sharing information.

Don't share your location. Nearly every app automatically tracks a user's location. From placing an online order for groceries or fast food to playing an online game, review the apps on all of your devices to see which ones are tracking your location. Then, if it's not needed, look in the settings to see how to disable this feature. Advise a friend or family member to avoid geo-tagging their posts with their location. Why? For example, you don't want to announce the fact your family is vacationing out of state while the house sits empty. A simple review of the geo-tagged post will reveal where you really are.

Use parental controls if necessary. Although the best way to keep a child's online privacy safe, www.bbb.org is to teach them to manage it themselves, it doesn't hurt to have their backs by using parental controls. Today Android, iOS, and most web browsers offer built-in features that allow parents to monitor their children's online activities, but third-party apps are available as well. Research the option that works best. Follow through with the child the reasons why you're monitoring their activities.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.

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