Those Free Apps Kids Use Have A Dark Side

Have you ever offered your child an iPad to play games in order to get some uninterrupted time to cook dinner, or to do some work around the house? Many of us have. It’s common for parents to allow young kids to play games on parent-owned phones or tablets.

But a new report from security firm Rubica finds many gaming apps for kids contain significant security risks and may not be safe for use. Find out more in this Cyber Savvy Mom column on BayState Parent.


*Image by Hal Gatewood


Is using free WiFi really risky?

We have been advised to stay off public WiFi networks because they are inherently risky. If you care about security and privacy, don’t jump on WiFi just because you HAVE to get access to something on your laptop.

But do you listen? No!

Apparently, no one is listening. Public, free WiFi is still increasingly popping up…well, everywhere. It’s in coffee shops, airports, it is even available in municipalities around the globe because many cities are developing free, public WiFi to power their own connected, smart cities initiatives.

Just how risky is WiFi these days? As this excellent Consumer Reports article notes, most sensitive data is now sent through encrypted channels. Many of the risks with public WiFi have faded since many adults began their online lives, according to Chester Wisniewski, a principal research scientist for the British cybersecurity firm Sophos.

This article breaks down the concerns that still exist with using public WiFi, and steps you can take to stay safe (or at least a bit safer) when using a public network.

*Image source: Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Has your email been compromised?

Want to know if your email information has been leaked on the dark web? Many email addresses, and associated passwords, have been compromised in recent data breaches. A breach is an incident where data has been unintentionally exposed to the public. Criminals then often make lists of this information and place them on dark web sites for others to view in order to access your account and steal sensitive data (think: financial account information).

Use this link (listed again below) to enter your address (or any address you want to check). If you have been “p0wned” – a term meaning exposed – your first step is to change the password associated with that account.

Other important tips: Do not reuse passwords across accounts, and always use strong passwords. Get tips for creating strong passwords here.

Tips for keeping kids safe on Fortnite

In my monthly column on, I dig deeper into a story that is making headlines about the dangers kids face while playing Fortnite and other online games and apps. A story originally reported on the site gained attention recently after the arrest of 24 men who police say were using messaging services through Fortnite (and other games and apps) to try and lure children. Law enforcement officials pretended to be kids and communicated with men who thought they were talking with 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls.

But how concerning is this news? Is this a Fortnite-specific problem (spoiler alert: no). And what do parents really need to know to help their kids stay safe while gaming and communicating online? Please read this month’s column for tips and advice.–apps

Today’s biggest social media scams

Social media adds much to our lives: friend connections, socializing, funny memes, political arguments (OK, maybe not ALL of it is positive). But putting yourself out their on a social network also brings risk into your life. Criminals know how much we love to log on and be social, and these sites are common targets for cons. Falling for these schemes sets you up for a malware infection on your device, or even a financial loss if someone manages to fool you into sending them money.

Be on guard for the darker activity making the rounds on social media. Check out these social media scams currently making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other popular sites.

What can I do to protect myself after Equifax?

I’m getting many questions from fellow CyberSavvy Parents out there who want to know the best recourse for protecting yourself and your credit after the massive breach announced earlier this month by Equifax.

A quick explainer if you’re not familiar with the breach I am referring to:

Equifax, a consumer credit reporting agency, reported earlier this month that cybercriminals had gained access to the personal information of approximately 143 million consumers. The information included social security numbers, addresses and other personal information that can be used to create credit accounts in your name and can also be sold for profit on the black market.

The answer to “what now?” is not that easy.  Some experts, like Terry Cutler, a security advisor who gets into suggestions in the video below, advise that you consider freezing your credit.  Freezing your credit is just what it sounds like: it puts a freeze on any new lines of credit that can be opened with your social security number.  You implement the freeze and you initiate the “unfreezing” of your credit as well with a personal identification number or other type of locking key/code that you establish when you initiate the freeze.

My issue with advising millions to freeze their credit is that this is not an easy on/off process and can be a headache, as explained in this article.  Is it an option? Yes. But don’t think it is a “quick fix” to your personal, sensitive information hanging out there for criminals to use.

More importantly: monitor your credit report vigilantly.  This was important before Equifax became headline news, and is now even more so.  If you have minor-aged children (and I assume if you’re reading this site you likely do), then check on their social security numbers too, frequently, to ensure there is no credit taken out in their names.  How do you do this? Unfortunately you need to take your inquiry back to the source of our headache: the credit reporting bureaus.  In addition Equifax, credit bureaus TransUnion and Experian need to be contacted to get a complete picture of what you have out there for credit lines.  All three bureaus also need to be contacted if you choose to freeze your credit.

I don’t promote specific products on this site, but there is the option of enrolling in a credit monitoring service for your entire family.  Google search for some options and do your homework before signing on to any service. And, no, I don’t recommend the service Equifax offered for “free” after they announced their breach. That was a public relations disaster of epic proportions and another topic for another day.

For today, my advice is what is often is: stay aware, be vigilant.  Keep on top of your credit accounts, bank accounts, loans, anything you have out there.  And look out for new lines you didn’t open. That includes your kids’ credit too.

These are tough times and the bad guys seem often to remain one step ahead of us when it comes to trying to take our good name, credit and money for their own nefarious purposes.  But be your own cyber warrior and be tough and aware.  Your best defense is always knowledge.



Checklist for back-to-school device security

Here in the Cyber Savvy household, we are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the first day of school. Only a few weeks away, the Cyber Savvy kids are looking forward to meeting their new teachers, reuniting with old friends and, of course, loading up on all that back-to-school gear we buy each year.

As students get older, school supplies often mean devices; laptops, tablets and other technology.  The team at Malwarebytes have put together this checklist of tips to help you keep your crew safe as they return to school this season.

  • Watch out for too-good-to-be-true software and device sales. Is that Facebook ad really promising a brand-new Mac laptop for $200 if you just click here and fill out your personal info? Think hard before you jump on a back-to-school online ad that seems fiendishly cheap. It could be adware, it could be a scam, or it could lead you to a malicious page that will later infect your own computer.
  • Ensure that they have security software and tools installed on their new device. Antivirus with anti-phishing features, firewalls, script blockers, ad blockers, password managers, anti-theft apps, anti-malware and ransomware—you name it. Cyberattacks can come from all sides these days, so it pays to have at least one of each of these software programs and/or extensions installed on their computer, phone, or tablet. And if you think your child’s Mac is bulletproof from these attacks, think again.
  • Stress the importance of physical security, too. Physically securing devices is just as important as securing the data inside of them. We’re not just talking about using a padded bag for laptops, or shock-absorbent cases and shatterproof screen covers for phones and tablets. We’re talking about locking cables and USB port blockers, actual things that thwart theft and unauthorized access, respectively, while they’re in school.
  • Instill in them the habit of locking computers when they have to move away from them for a while. Locking screens is another way to prevent others from, say, flipping your child’s screen upside down, snooping around, and looking at files they shouldn’t be looking at. Beware the “hacked” social media posts that reveal false, embarrassing information about their users!
  • Disable the autorun functionality of their OS. As you may know, malware can be stored in and transported via USB sticks. If your child’s computer automatically runs what’s inside it once slotted into the machine’s port, then this is a real problem. Thankfully, there are a number of ways one can disable autorun. For Windows users, Microsoft has dedicated a page just for that.
  • Introduce them to multi-factor authentication (MFA). The most common and widely used MFA is two-factor authentication (2FA). In order for them to know and understand what it is, you might show them how it works using your own phone and computer. That way, if they are asked to sign up for online programs that store their data at school, they can raise their hand and ask if the program has MFA. By educating your child on this security procedure, he or she can educate the school in turn.
  • Discourage rooting/jailbreaking. If your child is old enough to figure out how to root or jailbreak a device, chances are they’ll probably be tempted to do this. Jailbreaking opens devices to custom modifications and the unrestricted download and use of apps from third-party sources. These can be quite handy if your child wants one that cannot be found in the official app store. However, jailbreaking and rooting increases the success rate of a hacking attempt, as these overwrite the device’s inherent security settings, making devices more vulnerable and susceptible to threats.
  • Update game console firmware. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Isn’t your little gamer glad that back-to-school gadgets are not limited to calculators, headphones, and keyboards? Gaming consoles are becoming more like computers as they evolve. Although it’s rare for them to catch malware (at least for the time being), there are still ways hackers can circumvent their security to perform other malicious acts, such as gaining access to gaming accounts. So for now, update the gaming console’s firmware—and do this on a regular basis—before handing it to your child.

Find more back-to-school tips from Malwarebytes in their blog post on the topic.

New Snapchat feature shares user location. Is that OK for privacy and security?

Snapchat has a new feature that allows users to see where their friends are posting from. But this new location sharing feature has some concerned about privacy, and broader implications like stalking and bullying.  The good news is you can disable it. Check out these stories for more information on how to do that:

Is Snapchat safe for my teen?

I’ve been hearing about an app called Snapchat for about a year now. I am not a user of the app myself, but it has made a lot of waves and is particularly popular among teenagers. Snapchat allows users to send pictures, videos and messages which only last for a few seconds (between 1 and ten) and then the media disappears, leaving no digital trace (or does it? more on that in a minute). It’s touted for enabling “spontaneity” and allows the user to experience things in “real time.”

Unknown-2How many people are using Snapchat now? The most recent statistics I can find put the average number of monthly users at 100 million. And according to this video, it is THE social app to look out for because it “murders Facebook” (their words, not mine). While I’m often leery of big proclamations about the “next big thing” in anything, there is no denying that Snapchat is making an impression on a younger demographic and is worth some discussion.

Snapchat’s largest base of users are between 13 and 23. That means if you have a teenager, there is a good chance he or she is either using it already, or has friends that do. So, what’s important to know about this app?

1.) It has a reputation as the “sexting” app

Because the pictures and video have a limited shelf life, it is desirable because users assume that means they are leaving no digital trace of their naughty pics and messages.  But there ARE WAYS to save the images and messages, including using another phone to take a picture of it, or with a simple screenshot. Users should never ASSUME anything about their digital footprint. Advise your family members who may use this app that they should follow the same rules as other social media – never post something you don’t want the world to see.

2.) It can be used for bullying

Again, because of the limited shelf life of the media, some report Snapchat has been used for harassment and bullying. Ask your teen if they are aware of any of this behavior. Ask if they have witnessed or been subjected to it. Remind them that you won’t allow bullying and that they should speak to an adult if they are being harassed or know someone involved in bullying.

3.) It carries similar risks as other social media when it comes to strangers

Teen users especially should keep their network of friends on Snapchat to actual real-life friends – and only friends they really trust, as the fleeting nature of teen friendships could mean a controversial picture could come back to haunt them. Advise your teen NOT to connect with strangers or mere acquaintances on Snapchat – or any social media for that matter.

4.) It allows them to easily hide conversations from parents

If you have a “we will monitor regularly” type agreement with your child with regard to their device and online activity, then Snapchat is going to make that very difficult. Checking histories and message archives won’t reveal much because of the limited shelf life of conversations and pictures. If you are concerned about secrecy with your teen, consider making this app off limits.

As always, I’d like to remind you again that a conversation is your best security defense.  We can’t keep new apps and devices out of our kids’ hands forever, nor do we want to.  But understanding what is going on with newer, hotter apps, games and devices is what is going to help you guide your child in their growth as a secure and civil online citizen.







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