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7 Simple Ways to Protect Kids from Over-Spending Online

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By Catherine McManus, Associate Director of Marketing Communications, Women & Co.

"Mommy, what's a maiden?"

Kelly Holdcraft, mom of two very inquisitive -- and tech-savvy -- boys, was stumped when her 10-year-old emerged from the basement after playing video games asking her a seemingly out-of-the-blue question. Confused, she asked him to put the word in a sentence. "I just really need to know what a 'Maiden' is!"

Then it hit her like a ton of bricks. He was trying to figure out her mother's maiden name -- which was the first privacy question on the controls that she had set up on her family's Wii -- so that he could buy online points for a game that he was playing.

A few months later, she found her checking account nearly empty and $500 in mysterious charges on her iTunes account to blame. The culprit? "Crystals and gems," recounts Kelly, who had downloaded a 99-cent app for her 8-year-old, only to realize that he had been spending hundreds of dollars on virtual crystals and gems to make his character stronger while he played.

In an age where a simple swipe, click or touch can allow kids to unknowingly rack up thousands of dollars in charges, how can parents safeguard their info and help children understand the do's and don'ts of online spending?

Start early with the basics. It's never too early to start introducing the concepts of saving and spending money to young children. The more they know about the value of money and where it comes from, the less likely they'll be to spend it online without thinking about the consequences. For young kids, it can be as simple as an explanation of a purchase at the grocery store; when kids get older, you can give them first-hand experience with budgeting by giving them a small allowance each week. And don't forget to make it fun -- whether it's a simple game of Monopoly or an interactive lesson on the economics of baseball (available at Thinkfinity.org), games can be a great way to help kids understand the basic concepts of financial literacy.

For more tips on how to teach kids good financial habits, check out 3 Tips for Teaching Kids Good Financial Habits.

Be wary of "free". As Lisa Belkin pointed out in a recent blog post on HuffPost Parents -- and Kelly learned the hard way -- talking to kids about the meaning of the word "free" may need to be added to parents' to-do list in light of the prevalence of expensive add-ons to games and apps marketed to kids. While Apple refunded the charges to Kelly's account, and later changed its policy to make it more difficult for kids to accidentally rack up additional in-app fees, it's still important to help kids spot the types of prompts that might lead to unexpected charges.

Protect your password. Choosing a password that's difficult to guess is standard practice in an office environment, but should be de rigueur at home as well. If you have credit card or bank account information stored on a web site, make sure that your password isn't one that your child is likely to figure out on his own.

Log out. Once you've completed a transaction online, remember to log off every time so that your child won't be able to purchase anything using your previously-stored information.

Use visual tools. To help kids understand how money is spent and how to create a budget for family expenses, check out your bank's or credit card's online budgeting tools to give them a look at where your family spends their money. A colorful pie chart showing what percentage of your income you spend on monthly bills and groceries, for example, may help explain why you don't have unlimited funds to spend during their next trip to the toy store!

Create a wish list. How many times has your child desperately wanted a toy that she sees in the store, on TV, or online, only to totally lose interest in it the next day? To put a curb on the gimmes, help them create a wish list. The majority of shopping sites now have a virtual wish list tool online that you can use to help your kids keep track of theirs, helping them understand how to wait to make purchases with their savings or for special occasions.

Help them understand their digital footprint. Once kids begin interacting with others via digital media -- whether it's through texting, Facebook or online gaming -- it's time for a birds-and-the-bees level talk about the permanence of the information that they share online. It's more important than ever that they understand that ANYTHING that they post, text or email can be distributed widely -- and cannot be erased. It's a difficult concept for most adults to grasp, let alone children, but the sooner they understand the implications of personal info like Social Security Numbers and credit card account numbers getting into the wrong hands, the more equipped they'll be to make smart choices about what not to share online.

About the Author:
Catherine McManus leads public relations efforts for Women & Co.--her goal is to raise awareness for the site by leveraging insights from our content and partnerships to create news, build buzz, and activate social influencers as ambassadors for the Women & Co. brand. Prior to Women & Co., Catherine held various communications roles at The Parenting Group, publisher of Parenting magazine and Parenting.com, where she led the creation and execution of the group's national PR efforts and the development of various multi-media editorial partnerships. She began her career at Southard Communications, a PR firm in New York City specializing in consumer product publicity. Catherine is a native New Yorker, a graduate of Fordham University, and currently lives in Manhattan with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter.