Spring has sprung! With a milder Winter now behind us (I hope…but’s let’s face it, I am from Cleveland—Winter here is almost never truly “over”) we can now look forward to moving family activities outdoors and planning an eventful Summer. As the father of a Pre-Kindergartener, I know that one certain scheduled program we’ll be registering for is our community’s “safety town” educational course. Safety town is typically a one (possibly two) week program offered in the summer covering safety instruction for children entering Kindergarten in the upcoming Fall school year. The programming usually covers important topics such as fire safety, bicycle and bus safety, water safety, poison education and identifying strangers.
As I was preparing this article, I tried strolling down memory lane and recalling my own personal experience with safety town both as a student (many, many years ago!) and also as a dad (our 2 older children have already passed through the program). And while all the covered safety topics are very critical for learning and child safety development, I kept coming back to the topic of identifying a stranger, or as some course curriculums call it, “stranger danger”. I suppose the main life lesson of this topic really comes back to one question or point, who is a stranger? Too many adults the answers easy- a stranger (in simple terms) is anyone that you or your family doesn’t know. However, to a small, naïve child the answer is a bit more complicated as we further explain the differences between “bad” strangers and “safe” strangers (ie. firefighters, police officers, etc.). To complicate things a little more, we have to explain that to be classified as a “bad” stranger doesn’t mean they have to be scary-looking like Ursula from the Little Mermaid or have a deep sinister voice like Darth Vader, because “nice” or “pretty” strangers are just as dangerous. Perhaps the most important thing we can do as parents to protect our little loved ones is to educate them about recognizing and handling potentially dangerous situations.
When considering the safety (or lack thereof) of the Internet, the phrase “stranger danger “can mean a lot of different things. For many, when you hear the term stranger danger in this cyber context you may immediately think of online predators- adult individuals deceivingly communicating with children over the Internet via chat rooms, instant messaging, Internet forums, social networking sites, etc. VERY SCARY AND REAL STUFF! Others may be reminded of many risks associated with receiving unsolicited emails (malicious attachments, phishing links and scams), texts or even phone calls from unknown (stranger) sources. Even today, the highly prolific and publicized ransomware infections originate as a result of a user opening an attachment that masqueraded as something of the user’s interest. Again, this is all very scary and real stuff that requires serious attention.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to take a different twist on the stranger danger idea and discuss how to identify fake apps in the Google Play Store. In my opinion, the deceitful apps are often times malicious, almost all the time a nuisance to the user and can be detrimental to the purity and innocence of your child. I consider and treat these fake apps like the described “nice” or “pretty” strangers (they don’t look bad but their intentions are anything but good), and feel it is important to teach our children (and ourselves!) the importance of awareness when downloading and installing all apps and also how to recognize the fake ones.
What are some steps we can take to help spot fake apps in the Google Play Store?
1. Research the developer of the app that you are about to install or allow your child to install. Whether it be a fake Netflix app or a fake Angry Bird download, there are numerous examples (and growing exponentially daily) of apps available in the Google Play Store that aren’t what they appear to be. If the publisher’s name (typically placed below the available app) is not familiar, research it online. Take a minute to Google the name of the developer, as a legitimate developer will likely have their own website and other credible information online. There is also a high probability that if the publisher is bogus that this will also be exposed during a quick online search.
2. Check the required permissions before installing. One quick way to identifying a fake app is reading through all the permissions. If the permissions seem reasonable as you read up on the targeted app, however, during the download process many more permissions are demanded, chances are this app maybe fake. Also, use common sense when going through the permission listing. If you or your child are attempting to download a math app to supplement schooling and the app you are about to install is seeking acceptance for tracking call logs, text messages and requires your GPS location, you may want to think twice! The required app permissions should directly correlate to the functionality of the app.
3. Read the reviews of the app. I fully understand, and have seen firsthand many times where every review can’t be taken seriously. That is- somebody has a bad day or a personal bad experience (their own doing) and posts a negative review or a clearly anonymous reviewer posts either a glorious review (likely from someone inside the company) or a slanderous or damning review (posted by someone from a competing company). However, reading through the reviews is generally a great idea. If a published app is fake within the Google Play Store, you’ll likely see many reviewers post of their displeasure and alert others not to fall victim like they did.
4. Be mindful of apps that are simply mobile websites. Mobile website apps are dime a dozen, as they are easy to create and merely point back to a mobile version of the site- they are typically loaded with unwanted ads in an attempt to scam you into clicking on them.
The bottom line is that even though there are millions of amazing and legitimate apps available through the Google Play Store, the belief that their store can be fully trusted and that every available app is properly screened and harmless is simply not true. The Google Play Store is an open source store and that makes it easy for a cybercriminal to add or remove their apps at their leisure. For their part, Google does conduct security checks by their team to certify apps, and while there are an increasing number of bad/fake apps that are making it through their service, Google Play is much more secure than unofficial and/or third party online app stores. You need to be super cautious when downloading apps from a location other than the Google Play Store.
Even if you live in what most would consider a “safe” community, I still need to exercise caution when letting the kids play outside or be out after dark, etc. and the same goes when playing in the Google Play Store. My suggestion would be that if your child (or you) hears of a popular “must have” gaming app from a friend at school or in their neighborhood, don’t let them download apps unless supervised. We should make it a rule to have our kids seek permission or check with us before downloading apps because more and more of them are being found to be fake or malicious. And more than that, when we are the ones authorizing the approval, we need to review the steps listed above so that we too can recognize a phony app.
It’s been decades since most of us learned the basics of being safe on a bike or bus, but the fundamentals stick with you (wear a helmet…don’t distract the driver). And online safety within the Google Play Store (or anywhere) requires basic safety rules too. We want to protect our children’s eyes and mind, (and ours too), from negative and detrimental content. When accessing an app, do not become distracted and click “yes” to every demand they list, just to move through the process quickly. You may be saying yes to a cybercriminal accessing your banking information or complete address book. Following the outlined safety steps will minimize your “stranger danger”, and that is a good thing at any age.