Family Guide to Online Crime

When people go online, they can find information, uncover opportunities, or meet people from around the world. However, the Internet is also a potentially hazardous place. Illegal activities committed on the Internet are often hard to detect and even more difficult to prosecute, as these criminals can exist anywhere in the world.

Online crimes range from irritating computer viruses to frightening and even dangerous activities such as cyberbullying and harassment. As with other forms of crime, families need to understand the threats that they face and take action to protect themselves.

Identity Theft

When one person assumes the identity of another, it is a crime known as identity theft. Identity theft involves stealing a victim's personal information, quite often from a website, and using it for impersonation purposes. This crime usually occurs alongside other illegal acts, such as financial or employment fraud. The goal is to make purchases, earn money, or get loans using another person's identity.

The primary means of preventing identity theft is to keep personal information out of the hands of others. Because identity theft often occurs online, this means protecting passwords from being stolen and never giving out personal information, especially one's Social Security number, to untrusted parties or in response to unsolicited requests. It is also necessary to check one's credit report at least once a year to look for signs of identity theft.


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Viruses

Malicious software, or malware, is a major threat to computer security. It includes spyware, worms, and computer viruses, which can compromise a computer and damage files or enable others to take control of the machine. Malware can spread from one computer to another by opening files that are infected or visiting an infected website. Computers that do not have adequate protection can also fall prey to worms that infect the system by exploiting security weaknesses.

Anti-virus programs and software firewalls can reduce the risk of malware problems, but users should also avoid downloading untrusted software and never browse to suspicious-looking websites. Email filtering software can eliminate spam and also remove malware. Another good security measure for emails is to set email software to read messages in text mode only and to never download untrusted email attachments.


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Fraud

Many cyber-criminals trawl the Internet in search of unwary users they can trick into giving away money or personal information. This form of social engineering constitutes a crime known as online fraud. Phishing is one of the most common methods of cyber-fraud, in which malicious users pose as legitimate companies to send emails that trick people into trusting them.

Scams come in a multitude of forms, including get-rich-quick schemes, lottery winning notices, hoaxes, check scams, and phony business opportunities. Common sense is one of the best defenses against Internet fraud: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.


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Spam

Unsolicited commercial email is often sent by an advertiser to a lot of people at once. This type of email is called spam. Some spam email is legitimately sent by honest businesses, while others are not. Regardless of who sends it, spam is usually undesirable, much like piles of junk mail in a regular mailbox. Many email service providers provide automated filters that detect and remove spam. This function is also commonly available in modern email reader software packages and most anti-virus programs.


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Harassment

When one user insists upon maintaining unwanted contact with another person, it is known as harassment. This behavior often escalates to cyberbullying, stalking, threats of violence, or worse. The first step is to tell the offender to stop and then to record all interactions.

Never engage a harasser except to tell them to stop. Report persistent harassment to the user's Internet service provider (ISP), and if threats or stalking are in any way involved, also report it to law enforcement immediately.


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Kids and Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a form of harassment that involves the use of the Internet or texting to spread negative rumors about someone, make fun of them, or send any type of threat. Cyberbullying can happen on social media sites or via email or text message. Children are commonly both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying. Children who are suddenly afraid to go online or go to school may act this way because they are victims of cyberbullying.

Parents and children can respond to this by recording as much information about prior interactions as possible and blocking the offender. In addition, it will be necessary to contact the bully's parents or, if that doesn't work, talk to the school, ISP, or phone service provider, depending on the medium in which the bullying has occurred. When threats are involved, contact law enforcement right away. Always instruct children to never send sexually explicit messages or pictures, which is illegal and can significantly raise the risk of becoming a victim of cyberbullying.


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Safe Surfing

The best cure for the threats that lurk on the Internet is prevention. Knowing how to surf the Internet safely is a skill that the entire family needs to master. There are a number of websites that provide tips on how to reduce one's risk of running into trouble while online. These websites provide cyber-safety advice for parents and children alike.

This article was last updated on Tuesday, October 10, 2017.