Tony Neate of Get Safe Online outlines the steps families can take to minimise online and mobile security risks.

With nine out of ten children (91%) aged 5-15 living in a household with internet access and 41% of 12 to 15-year-olds now in possession of a smartphone, the need for young people to be aware of how to conduct themselves safely and securely online has never been greater.

Online viruses, hacking, spam emails and ‘phishing’ scams are just a few of the potential security threats that parents need to be aware of. While this may sound worrying, this shouldn’t deter families from getting online and enjoying the many benefits the internet and other technologies offer.

Understanding the risks, spotting the warning signs and knowing how to act are the best ways to protect your child online.

What are the potential risks for families and children?

Now that Web-enabled smartphones mean we can be online 24/7, we are spending more time and money on the Web. This, of course, attracts the attention of fraudsters and cyber-criminals who are constantly developing new ways to make money and target the vulnerable.

The potential risks for families are no different to that of any other Web user. Often, the main concern for parents is that they are not always as familiar with certain aspects of the Web as their children, making it difficult to understand what they do online or how best to protect them. Young people who have grown up with the internet are so comfortable with it they are sometimes a little too relaxed and open with what they share and how they behave online.

To this end, we all need to be savvy digital citizens – and if, as a parent, you can say this about yourself, you’re most of the way there in being able to help your children to be the same.

There’s a lot at stake here – your family’s privacy, time, money and even reputation – so it’s better to pre-empt these issues rather than try to resolve them when it’s too late.

What can I do?

Firstly, taking action to protect the computers, mobile phones and other devices used by your family can dramatically minimise the risk of you or your children falling victim to fraudsters. You can do this easily by:

  • Installing anti-virus software, anti spyware software and a firewall
  • Updating your operating system(e.g. Microsoft Windows or Apple OS)
  • Using up-to-date applications, such as your Web browser (e.g. Chrome or Safari)
  • Encrypting your wireless internet network
  • Not clicking on spam emails or text messages and blocking them if you can

The Get Safe Online website provides simple, step-by-step advice on each of these measures.

Secondly, it’s important to talk to your child about being safe online, taking them through the potential risks and what they mean. This includes not just your home PC, but anywhere where internet access is involved, including mobile phones and games consoles. Be sure to listen to your child and answer any questions they may have – but don’t be afraid to ask your own questions back to get a sense of what they are getting up to online and understand any potential risks.

Thirdly, your children need to be aware that what they do, share and how they behave online is just as important as having the latest security software. Increasingly, online criminals are relying on forms of ‘social engineering’ – in other words, using ‘clever’ tricks to encourage people to hand over personal or financial details for a seemingly legitimate reason.

Being careful online involves things like:

  • Using strong passwords (i.e. containing a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols such as # or *)
  • Not giving away too much personal information on blogs and social networking sites
  • Not opening email attachments or clicking on instant messages from people you don’t know
  • Being aware of and knowing how to spot scams

Simple measures – such as helping younger children to create a strong, but fun, password for their computer games – will go a long way in building the right attitude and sense of vigilance required to stay safe online.

Do smartphones bring any new risks?

As technology evolves, so do the methods cyber-criminals are using to target us. So, we always have to stay a step ahead.

Today, a growing threat is the increasing volume of malicious software (malware) being used by fraudsters to target smartphone users. More and more young people are using these mobile devices to access the internet – for social networking, downloading apps and games and, for older children, online banking or shopping.

Smartphones hold an abundance of personal and financial data so, in the event that it is lost or stolen, making sure your child secures their handset with a PIN or password is crucial.

Fraudsters have also begun using online app stores to lure smartphone users into downloading ‘rogue apps’ that can take control of phones, giving criminals free reign to make calls, send and intercept SMS and voicemail messages, and browse and download online content. This also gives them access to all personal and payment data stored on the phone. It’s important to make your child aware of the risks associated with ‘rogue apps’ and what checks they should make before downloading them.

Take time out

The only way to protect your family is to take responsibility for your own security and empower your child to take responsibility for theirs. Although we may feel we don’t have time for this, taking preventive measures today will save you a great deal of trouble or worry in the long term.

The key online security risks include:

  • Spyware infecting your computer so someone can steal your identity
  • Getting ripped off, having your identity stolen and falling for scams
  • Pop-ups and viruses messing up your computer
  • Someone taking over your computer and using it to target other people with things like spam and viruses
  • Being hit with spam and scam emails
  • Having your wireless network hacked
  • Someone using email or chat to bully,con or cheat you
  • Being conned into visiting fake websites and handing over personal information


Get Safe Online Tips


  • ...your child’s website history and consider keeping the family computer in a common area so you can keep an eye on internet activity
  • phone bills and activity on your child’s mobile phone – unexplained charges, rapid battery loss and unfamiliar applications can be warning signs of malicious software


  • ...your child’s passwords are strong, containing a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols
  • phone bills and activity on your child’s mobile phone – unexplained charges, rapid battery loss and unfamiliar applications can be warning signs of malicious software


  • ...not giving out personal information to people or organisations they are not familiar with – just like they wouldn’t in person
  • to surf smartly – for example, always checking reviews and ratings before downloading a new app on their mobile or buying goods from an online retailer


Vodafone's Mobile Security Checklist

  1. ENCOURAGE your child to look after their phone as they do other valuables, like their purse or wallet
  2. SHOW them how to set auto-lock, a password/PIN on their handset and voicemail, and a SIM lock code
  3. SUGGEST they avoid using ‘screen swipe’ codes (where they swipe a shape on their phone screen to unlock it) as greasy fingermarks could reveal the code to others
  4. USE a remote ‘lock and wipe’ service (e.g. Vodafone Protect) to determine the location of the phone, lock the handset and delete the phone’s contents if it is lost or stolen
  5. EXPLAIN why they should only download apps from reputable app stores and why it’s important to read any Terms and Conditions so that they understand what personal information they are sharing and any costs involved (even apps from reputable app stores may involve additional costs for things like in-app purchases)
  6. SUGGEST they switch off or limit who can ‘see’ their phone via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
  7. KEEP a note of their phone’s IMEI number(press *#06# or look under the battery to find it) and, if their phone is stolen, report it to their network provider (e.g. Vodafone) and the police straight away
  8. COMPLETE a factory reset to clear the phone of any content associated with your child if they decide to sell their phone or give it away
  9. BEWARE of second-hand devices – cheap phones from unauthorised sources may come pre-loaded with malware intended to defraud the new owner
  10. EXPLAIN how tampering with or ‘jail breaking’ their phone could lead to malfunctions and malware


Useful websites

Action Fraud

CEOP Command

Get Safe Online


Get Safe Online

Get Safe Online is a joint partnership between the UK Government, law enforcement, leading businesses and the public sector. It aims to provide computer users and small businesses with free, independent, user-friendly advice that will allow them to use the internet confidently, safely and securely.

Get Safe Online

This article first appeared in Vodafone’s Digital Parenting magazine (2012).

Tony Neate

Following a 30-year police career,Tony Neate is now the CEO of Get Safe Online, the UK’s leading source of information on protection against fraud, identity theft, viruses and many other problems encountered online.