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Stranger danger: how to safeguard your child against in-gaming theft

Video games have been around for decades, but the way that we play them has changed dramatically and that means you now need to be money-safe in the digital world too.

Gone are the days of playing solo with pixelated screens and poor sound, now the creation of online community video games means players can connect with others all around the world, playing with and against each other.

During lockdowns, the social function of gaming has been a lifeline for many.

But while it’s normal to play online with people you’ve never met, fraudsters are finding new ways to use these digital spaces for financial gain.

Microtransaction fraud, also known as in-app purchase fraud, is where fraudsters target in-game currency, things you’ve bought digitally in the games, and real cash stored in online wallets.

While you might not consider a videogame hack to be as devastating as a bank account breach, let alone a home burglary, victims do lose personal property, and cash, as a result.

Digital currency and items ranging from weapons to “skins” (the outfits worn by players’ characters) can be worth a lot to hackers who sell them for real money in online marketplaces.

But unlike more usual types of fraud, it’s not just adults that can fall victim, children are being targeted too.

Children put in hundreds of hours playing games like Roblox, and they’re emotionally connected to their accounts — to a level many adults may not consider.

Here they could lose more than just their username and password; they could lose the worlds they’ve built, the items they collected, the avatars they’ve customised, and the friends they’ve made.

While this may not seem like a big deal to an adult, to a child it really is. It happened to a friend’s niece and she was devastated.


What happened?

The six year old was the proud owner of several different animals within Adopt Me.

It’s a game within the Roblox platform, the most popular game among primary school children.

Her animals included, what I’ve been assured was, a magnificent-looking horse.

While playing the game, she was approached by another player who identified herself as a popular YouTuber - though it turns out this was a lie - and asked that she lend her the horse for use in one of the YouTuber’s training videos.

Too young to know about online safety and best practice, handed over her horse, and then was understandably confused and irate when this stranger disappeared with the pet and refused all requests to return it or even engage in conversation about it.

While it was by no means an economic disaster (I’ve been told the horse was worth roughly £2), it was traumatic to a young girl and opened my eyes to the risks of online gaming and kids.

While you might not consider a videogame hack to be as devastating as a bank-account breach, let alone a home burglary, victims do lose personal property, and cash, as a result

What are Microtransactions?

Microtransactions, also known as in-game purchases, are now a common feature in games that are free to download but need users spend cash to buy add-ons that can either be cosmetic to enhance the gaming experience. These can be limited-edition items, skins, passes, or game awards that enable them to clear the levels more quickly and gain an advantage over an opponent.

They also feature in ‘freemium’ games where some portions of the game are free, whereas to access the full content, the users need to pay up.

Players can either accumulate the in-game currency through extended gameplay or buy it using real-world currency.


What games are at risk?

Roblox, launched in April 2017, is one of the most popular games amongst kids aged 4-15.

Roblox player profiles include names, email addresses and other identifiable records. The vast quantity of in-game microtransactions, coupled with massive numbers of very young players, make Roblox a key target for cybercriminals.

While Fortnite is a hugely popular game but it’s also seen its share of online theft. One such case saw players become the victims of scammers using YouTube videos to entice players with promises of free or discounted ‘V-Bucks’ (the game’s currency).

These videos would steer people to websites that would request specific codes that would grant the scammers access to account payment details, or be littered with ads that, when clicked, would install software with computer viruses in it.

Outside of financial scamming, authorities and industry bodies are warning both players and parents of the risks associated with online gaming, from cyber bullying and abusive behaviour to predatorial behaviour and grooming.

With so many young people playing these games it’s easy to see why parents may be concerned. But how can we better equip ourselves, and our kids, with the tools to enjoy gaming online safely and responsibly?

Know your ratings

Knowledge is power, and understanding exactly what a game is, what it contains and what age group it’s intended for can help you to feel more in control.

Be sure to check that the game your kids want to play is age-appropriate by checking out PEGI, the gaming age-rating system that will let you know via a quick search the broad content of the game, the age rating attached, and even if the game features in-game purchases.

While it’s normal to play online with people you’ve never met, fraudsters are finding new ways to use these digital spaces for financial gain

Read up on the games that your kids are playing

A great resource for parents looking to get in the know is askaboutgames.com.

This site offers comprehensive guides to the major games that kids are playing (including the likes of Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox), including key watchouts and questions you might have about them.

Further to this, the broader site offers a diverse range of articles and FAQs about gaming, and even launched a new initiative last year named Get Smart About P.L.A.Y, aiming to help equip parents with the tools to manage screen time, spending, and generally navigate gaming safely.


Apply parental controls

Thankfully, most games nowadays cater to younger audiences (and their parents) by offering a range of parental controls to help manage the experience.

With filters available to help control things such as inappropriate language, in-game purchases and visibility of information, it’s a good idea to acquaint yourself with these should your child wish to pick up a new game to play.

Guides to these are available for all the major titles, including Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite, and broader guides to parental controls across a range of platforms and devices can be found courtesy of internetmatters.org and also on askaboutgames.com.


Monitor any spending

Often when playing online, credit or debit card information needs to be provided for each account to enable in-game purchases.

Whether that’s your card or your child’s card, it can be very easy to start racking up big bills in just a matter of days. The best way to avoid this is just don't provide any card information when activating the account.

If the games operate on a more traditional subscription basis, or work through the likes of Apple or Google Play, then activate the purchase password feature in the account settings menu – this will require you to authorise any purchases so you stay in control.

Finally, make it a point to check your statements and bills regularly to avoid any build-up of in-game charges – you’ll quickly identify any purchases that somehow slipped through the net.

Most games cater to younger audiences (and their parents) by offering a range of parental controls to help manage the experience – you just need to know where to look

Have a conversation about the risks attached

As in the unfortunate case of my niece, often a child might make simply make a mistake when playing online, giving away account details, clicking on dodgy links, or sharing too much information with strangers.

Sitting down with your kids and making them aware of the risks and setting some basic ground rules can help prepare them for gaming online safely. Many of these may seem like common sense to you or I, but to a child who’s less aware, it might need some hammering home.

InternetSafety101 offers a great guide to the main watch outs you need to make your kids aware of, as well as tips for you as a parent in general.


Guides for Kids

Build on these conversations by providing online resources – there are now sites and forums set up to help educate youngsters as to how to play and enjoy games in the safest way possible.

Sites like Childline and the BBC have compiled easy to access guides for kids that cover a wide range of topics, from microtransactions and controlling spending, to what to do in the event of cyber-bullying and the importance of taking regular screen breaks.


Spend time gaming with your children

This might sound obvious, but simply asking your children about what they enjoy, and sitting with them whilst they play is the best way of getting to know what they’re playing and how they work.

You’ll quickly get an understanding of the potential pitfalls attached to any game and it can even be fun to watch them play.

Used well, videogames can be an amazing and exciting hobby - and as we reported this Spring, some, like Animal Crossing for instance, teach your children financial lessons.

But keeping your wits about you will also protect your wallet.


Don’t forget that while you may think that this article is brilliant, it is intended for information purposes only and should not be mistaken for financial advice or recommendations.

3 things to do
right now

1

Use a prepaid card for game purchases where you can only spend the balance that has been preloaded onto it. This means there is no risk of running into debt as it has no credit or overdraft facility and, crucially, the card has none of your personal bank details attached to it.

2

Give your kids digital pocket money. Talk to them about in-app purchases and encourage them to take a responsible attitude towards them. As they grow older, consider giving them ‘digital’ pocket money in the form of an iTunes or Google Play gift card. They can spend within limits and learn about budgeting too.

3

If you’re gaming on an Apple device use the Screen Time function to prevent unintentional or unauthorised purchases from the App Store and other Apple services. You can make a password a requirement to buy anything, prevent certain kinds of purchase, or disable purchasing completely.

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