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Originally published March 23, 2012 at 3:50 PM | Page modified March 25, 2012 at 4:54 PM

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Teaching teens, tweens basic cybersafety rules

Internet surfers should know how to protect their computers from viruses and hackers, but teens and tweens can be especially vulnerable...

By Julie Weed Special to The Seattle Times

5 things parents should teachabout protecting computers

• Use strong passwords that combine numbers, letters and symbols. Don't make passwords easy to guess and never share them.

• Don't open attachments from people you don't know. If they're from someone you know but they look odd, don't open them.

• Don't make an online purchase before checking out the company and asking parents.

• Be wary of illegal and free downloadable media. They might harbor malware.

• Keep anti-virus software up-to-date and periodically check PC for viruses.

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Internet surfers should know how to protect their computers from viruses and hackers, but teens and tweens can be especially vulnerable because they download media from so many sources, and may not be aware of the latest scams.

Young people who aren't vigilant might find their files corrupted, their hard drives wiped clean and the destruction spread to family and friends' computers. Their personal data can also be stolen and used for identity theft.

Parents need to be responsible for setting up firewalls and installing virus-protection software on every computer in the home, said Nancy Willard, author of "Cyber Savvy: Embracing Digital Safety and Civility." But because teens' actions can significantly affect those computers, it is important to teach them basic cybersafety rules.

Teens and tweens should be taught never to open attachments from people they don't know, because the files might contain malicious software, or malware. Malware can disrupt a computer's operation or secretly gather personal information.

Some malware insert a virus that destroys data or software. Others install spyware, which records keystrokes in the hopes of accessing personal information and passwords. Still others take control of the PC and use its processing power remotely, sending spam from the owner's account, for example. Odd-looking messages and attachments, even from someone the user knows, should not be opened.

Free illegal downloads of music and videos may be enticing for teens, but the media files can carry malware. Free games can also contain malware and should be downloaded only from reputable sites.

Computer experts say that if a computer starts crashing often, slows down significantly or exhibits other unusual behavior, it may have a virus and should be checked.

Teens also need to know about the most common kinds of online scams, said Willard.

Legitimate companies generally no longer request personal information by email, so teens need to learn to recognize "phishing" messages, which pose as legitimate companies asking the user for login IDs, passwords, credit-card or bank-account numbers. Parents can point out these emails to their children when they encounter them in their own accounts.

Pop-up windows warning users of a virus that can be fixed are also usually scams. Teens should also avoid clicking "yes" or "I agree" to banner ads on unexpected pop-up windows or websites. Instead, they can press Ctrl + F4 on the keyboard to close the window on a Windows PC. They should trust their instincts when they see deals that sound too good to be true, or email congratulating them on winning a lottery they never entered, said Willard.

Teens should learn to make strong passwords for all their online accounts, combining letters, numbers and symbols in a combination that isn't too easy to guess. If they see their email, social-media or game account has been used by someone else, they should change the password immediately (if possible) and report it to the provider. Teens should never share their passwords.

Criminals on the Internet can compromise someone's computer without the victim finding out for months, sometimes ever. But teens, tweens and the rest of us can take steps to minimize that risk.

Julie Weed is a free-lance writer in Seattle. For her other stories on Teens, Tweens and Technology, go to seattletimes.com/personaltechnology.

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