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Friday, September 24, 2021

How to stay safe from the threats posed by online gaming

From cyber-bullying and malware risks to identity theft and hidden charges, here are the factors you need to be aware of before heading into online gaming.

August 10, 2021 3:53:16 pm
gaming, online gaming,Here are the risks associated with online gaming that you should know about. (Image Source: Pixabay)

Written by: Hersh Shah, CEO, India Affiliate, Institute of Risk Management

Gaming is fast becoming a popular pastime, whether among the young or old. Its popularity soared during the pandemic last year, as people were forced to stay indoors. With 7.3 billion installs, Indian users shot to the top of the total number of mobile game downloads worldwide in 2020.

This is not surprising, given that it is an entertaining way of spending time by oneself. Most games also contain competitive elements, often pitting the gamer against known or unknown adversaries, and can hence be very engaging. Other games virtualise team sports, thus encouraging collaboration and teamwork. Gaming can also be quite useful in developing skills, such as quick thinking and faster reflexes.

However, there is also a darker side to gaming that consumers should be aware of. After all, knowledge is the first step towards mitigation. Here are some of the risks associated with gaming:

Risk of addiction

Under its 2018 International Classification of Diseases, the WHO defines gaming disorder, under addictive behaviour, as a “pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Games can be addictive, primarily because these are designed to ensure that gamers keep returning often. To mitigate this risk, it is best to set aside limited time for gaming, making sure that there is enough time for regular activities, exercise, and social interactions.

Risk of undesirable interactions

Multiplayer games often involve anonymous players engaging on the same platform. They can use built-in chat features or connect on sites like Discord. Sometimes these interactions can become acrimonious and may take the form of cyberbullying and harassment. For many parents, there is also the risk of their children interacting with sexual predators and other criminals who can use the opportunity to lure unsuspecting minors.

To safeguard against such risks, it is important to always minimise contact with strangers and shut down any abusive language immediately. Other than monitoring their ward’s online behaviour, parents must counsel children on safe online behaviour.

Risk of webcam access

Webcams have always been a vulnerable element as they are easy to hack. With in-built cameras on our phones and laptops, the risk has increased manifold. Once hacked, a webcam provides the hacker a way into our device. To protect against this, start by checking the device’s default setting to ensure that the camera stays ‘off’ unless directed otherwise. The camera can also be masked with a physical cover or a masking tape.

gaming, online gaming, For many parents, there is also the risk of their children interacting with sexual predators and other criminals who can use the opportunity to lure unsuspecting minors. (Image Source: Getty/Thinkstock)

Malware risks

Today, malware like Trojans and adware have become so sophisticated that they can sneak into your device even through legitimate purchases. This is because many of these malware often mimic or modify an authorised app, and are available on legitimate marketplaces. In other words, they are extremely hard to identify, and users are often unaware that they are carrying the malware in their device till an attack is triggered. It can pay to install a good cybersecurity app to scan a game before downloading it. It is also a good practice to always read the recent reviews and the news on the game, its developers, and the marketplace.

Risk of hidden charges

Many online games today offer the ‘freemium’ model, where one can download the app and play for free. However, these models have in-game purchases for props, additional functions, or for moving to the next level. Many freemium models also offer subscriptions – the payment is usually taken through a credit card and users have to typically submit their card details at the time of download or purchase.

The problem arises when users get charged unknowingly or end up making an impulse buy. To prevent this, password protection of payment apps is imperative. One can also turn off the settings for in-app updates to prevent careless purchases. In addition, it is always best to check credit card statements regularly to track any unauthorised charges.

Risk of identity theft

Last year, identity theft had emerged as a major cyber security threat in the country with 2.7 crore Indians affected – a massive jump of 40% over the previous year. The perpetrators use personal information such as date of birth, address, and phone number, to access a user’s account, resell it, or use it to make purchases. Online games can be one such avenue of attack for cybercriminals. To avoid falling into this trap, one must never share sensitive information while signing up or when chatting with strangers on a game.

Risk of insecure games

A compromised game server with insecure code or malware can potentially infect the entire network. It can be used to spread the flaw and expose gamers to spyware and malware. This is a very critical reason why one must always download games from a trusted source or marketplace. Use the game site to play, keeping it separate from the web browser, and keep games ask for certain exceptions to the in-built firewalls and permission should be granted only after careful consideration. In addition, it is always best to avoid playing in ‘administrator mode’ as it can also make the device vulnerable to external control. Instead, opt for a user account.

Emergence of virtual sweatshops

The rise of the virtual economy in gaming has also given rise to virtual sweatshops where people from poorer countries are often engaged by scamsters to trick in-game protective AI. These protective tools are designed to secure the game from fraudulent bots, but can be circumvented by humans. Scamsters engage these sweatshops as they are harder to detect and offer them the best cost advantage, however, these are often exploitative in addition to being illegal. The solution here requires a large-scale effort to crack down on such arrangements. At an individual level, one can only keep monitoring for attacks.

Risk of virtual mugging

‘Virtual mugging’ is the common term used for stealing or attacking someone in the virtual world. Such incidences are not uncommon or new. South Korea, where gaming is a huge industry, reported 22000 such cases as far back as 2003, and virtual crimes targeting gamers, especially children, have been widely reported in India as well. There have also been multiple incidents where children have ended up making expensive purchases after getting duped by cyber cons.

There are, clearly, multiple risks associated with gaming. However, since it is a great source of entertainment and also helps in the development of certain skills, avoidance of games should not have to be the solution, and the measures discussed in this article can help in safeguarding against the risks. In addition, one should also exercise some general cybersecurity measures, such as updating browser security, using a firewall, password-protecting any sensitive information, installing a good antivirus program, maintaining back-ups of any personal or financial data, and above all, remaining vigilant at all times.

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