I thought she'd stopped. She'd been promising that she would for months. "Hi darling," she chirped in an email, "I just wanted to see what you thought of this." As soon as I clicked the link, I knew that I had failed her.
"Work at home mum makes $10,397/month part-time," the webpage screamed. All the tell-tale signs were there: the strange URL, the linkless seals of approval from the BBC, CNN, MSNBC, USA Today; the overly-exuberant testimonials; the photo of the cheque for $5,000 sent to the successful mumtrepreneur; the torrent of commenters allaying your doubts about the site's legitimacy; the fact that all outbound links direct you to the same website "Home Profit Web", and the "are you sure you want to leave this page message" when you try to escape. Best of all was the unexpectedly honest small print: "This website, and any page on the website, is based loosely off a true story, but has been modified in multiple ways including, but not limited to: the story, the photos, and the comments."
Ever since I taught my mother how to use the web about 12 years ago, she has been an easy target for online scammers and time wasters. Sometimes her digital gullibility is fairly harmless – for example, the dancing leprechaun email that asks to be forwarded to up to 20 people to in return for administering a sliding scale of luck. At other times, it's a little more sinister, such as the email from the "Met Police" warning women about rapists waiting to jump into the back of your car at service stations. She hasn't quite been lured by a Nigerian trustee keen to offload some of their riches to a UK bank account, but I worry that one day she'll bankrupt herself by signing up for one of these get-rich-quick schemes of phishing scams.
My mum is by no means stupid. Offline, she's wary of cowboy tradesmen, door-to-door sales people, pyramid schemes, scientologists and people-who-don't-like-dogs. However, she is somehow hypnotised by the blinky-blinky lights of the web. This makes her blind to the digital cues that betray a site's untrustworthiness. There are plenty of other late digital immigrants like my mum who are also susceptible. So much so that some online con artists create "sucker lists" - databases of people who have fallen for their tricks who can be retargeted at a later date.
To protect people like my mother and people like her from these predators, I propose a "filial control" setting which allows children to control what their parents can and can't see on the web. On a basic level, this would cover the scams detailed above, but it could be extended to the ecommerce equivalents of the Innovations Catalogue so as to avoid the unnecessary acquisition of banana stands, toaster bags, chocolate fountains and granny vacuum cleaner covers.
Stricter children might want to add other web nasties such as the Mail Online, e-cards and caps lock. In conjunction with these controls, parents would have to take weekly web aptitude tests to see if they are capable of handling an unrestricted web. Only once they can consistently get 70% in bogus benefactor busting, phishing detection and meme recognition will they be released from their cyberspace shackles.
By Olivia Solon