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Avoiding tween-oriented spyware and scams

When kids and teens use search engines to find music, photos and ringtones, the results they get from scammers may be disguised spyware and porn.

Parents may think that their kids are safe online as long as they limit their surfing to topics like squeaky-clean Disney star "Hannah Montana." Unfortunately, new research from McAfee points out that scammers hijack pop culture topics, so that when kids search for popular songs or stars, what they sometimes get is data-stealing spyware or porn-redirects.

McAfee research analyst Shane Keats was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly's PopWatch blog. Keats explains how an innocent search can go awry:

"When [kids] first get to an offer for a Hannah Montana screensaver, they just click yes. Three or four clicks later, they've got a single image of Hannah Montana that may or may not be legal, and they're also going to give themselves porno pop-up ads."

Keats suggests three surfing strategies to avoid these scams. First, stick to the official sites. If kids want to learn about Hannah Montana's new song "Life's What You Make It" (currently the most scammed search query), it's best to stick to Disney's web pages. Any "free" offers and downloads outside the official sites should be considered suspect. Second, among search-engine results, engine-generated links tend to be safer than sponsored links placed by advertisers. Third, use security software, which of course McAfee makes.

I appreciated reporting on this unfortunate roadblock to safe surfing. It's important for parents to know that as kids get online, it's not enough to just to tell them to stick to age-appropriate topics. Verifiying individual sites is more work, but much safer.

It's unconscionable for scammers to create deceptive offers designed to link kid-friendly searches searches to porn and spyware. Parents need to keep an eye on this situation, and we need more help with sane regulation and law enforcement to drive these scammers out of business.