Around a year ago, I received a text message from my teenage daughter telling me she’d been robbed. She told me she needed some help to get to the police station and some money to buy a new phone. I’d have been worried except for the fact that I don’t have a teenage daughter, or any daughter in fact. The number texting me was unknown and I’d read about this particular mechanism of digital scamming; I deleted the text message, blocked the number, and didn’t think about it again.

That was until a few months later when, researching for some training, practitioners reported to me that they knew of young people making money through what seemed to me to be a form of online money laundering. A young person told me they’d been asked to set up a Monzo online bank account, hold a sum of money there for a few days and then send it elsewhere, keeping a small percentage of the deposit they’d been given for themselves. According to CIFAS, young adults (aged up to 30) account for 64% of cases of this so-called ‘money-muling’. 

In both these instances, the money makers were earning relatively small amounts, perhaps £100, £200 each time. That said, the hyper-local and repeatable nature of these ventures could eventually see those involved making a fair amount of money. In a recent survey conducted by the Children’s Society, concern about rising prices and the cost of living was listed as the issue young people are most worried about in 2023. Young people, indeed, all people, are concerned with money making amidst a frightening cost of living crisis that shows no sign of easing. I see this concern reflected in the work I do with ConnectFutures. Over the last few months, these methods of making extra cash have been increasingly referenced in safeguarding training we run with adults and young people across the country. From what I can tell, the perception is that they are relatively low-risk and high reward. This got me interested in how people make money online. Are there certain lines they are willing to blur to be financially successful? How normalised are these behaviours, and how do they impact our feelings of safety and citizenship? 

To help me understand more about online money-making, I spoke to several young people over the space of a few months. I explained to them I was interested in their experiences of making money online and what they’d heard about or seen on different platforms. The young people I spoke with were very generous with their time and their experiences; I hope as I reflect now I do not appear to take the gift of their experience for granted. Because of them I am more informed and aware and able to navigate difficult online spaces. The conversations were brilliant and mind-boggling and I want to share some of the things I learnt with you. 

Influencing and Gaming

I started at what I thought was the beginning; where do young people spend their time online and what options are there for money making in those spaces? The most regularly cited platforms were Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok. The young people told me about some of the ways they and their peers make money on these apps, especially on TikTok. 1 in 5 British young people report they would like to be a social media influencer when they grow up, so going viral was, expectedly, deemed the most immediately lucrative option for aspiring money-makers. Indeed, in a tone of admiration, one young person told me a girl from their school now has millions of TikTok followers and makes thousands of pounds per post. I’ve no way to verify this, but the possibility of truth in this story was obviously appealing to the young person I was speaking to. It was a little to me, as well. 

At ConnectFutures, we warn educators about how the desire to make viral content can lead to an increase in mis-and-disinformation; essentially the more shocking the post the more likely it is to be shared, go viral and eventually, become monetizable. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story… or pay cheque? But the young people I was speaking to were making money in legitimate and time intensive ways; through paid or sponsored advertising, dropshipping, or nano-influencing. 

Dropshipping: Young people understand this as when you get your hands on a popular product, review it for your audience and then sell it privately at a cost higher than the market price. Amazon defines it here

Nano-influencing: Understood as a profile that has between 1k-10k loyal followers, who’s audiences are accessed by local advertisers. Forbes writes about this trend here

Another young person told me about making money via gaming. Initially on edge, (I know some horror stories about extremists in online gaming platforms), I learnt about techniques not dissimilar to those I experienced when I was at school. Much like the buying and swapping of Pokémon cards, young people can make lots of money (thousands of pounds, I was told) selling high achieving gaming profiles, online skins (outfits or appearances of popular gaming characters), or by winning online gaming tournaments. It seemed to me that the financial ambition and desire that I recognised in my peers when I was growing up had simply shifted from one playground to another – from offline spaces to online spaces. 

The darker side of online money making

It was at this point that, feeling relatively smug at my knowledge of the online financial world, I heard something that surprised me. Talking about popular games – think Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnight – we began discussing first person shooter games like Call of Duty. The young person told me that the age restrictions on these games are basically always ignored, guaranteeing me that most people they played with were under the 18+ age restriction. I was not surprised to hear this, but was interested to learn about how young people get round age restrictions placed on online spaces. “You just put in a fake age”, they told me, laughing kindly. I was surprised at my own obvious naivety.

Young people reported the apps are not asking for proof of age and in some instances, they are not asking for ages at all. As such, young people were not only spending time on age-restricted apps like Tinder, but they were also making money on them. One young person told me how they knew of boys (aged around 15) who’d created fake ‘Cat-Fish’ profiles on dating apps and successfully convinced older men to send them money for pictures of AI generated women, or for their online company. The young person said, “You know, it’d only be £50 per guy, but if they spoke to ten guys then that gets to be lots of money quite quickly.” I thought again of the scammers who pretended to be my non-existent daughter. These are online get-rich-quick wins; the morality of their deployment is murky.

Dark web, drugs, counterfeit money and credit card theft

After this, I became interested in other quick-cash methods. I was told about how the dark web can be easily accessed to buy counterfeit money – “You could pay, say, £100 and be sent £500 of properly convincing money that you could spend in shops”. I remembered an idea a friend of mine had at school after learning about post-war inflation money printing. She was convinced she’d be able to print her own money at home and buy herself a Dolce and Gabbana watch in Debenhams. These are the same instincts, but today the online space has provided us more effective means of achieving our wild schemes. 

In a similar vein, a young person told me that you could buy what they called ‘logs’ on the dark web and the encrypted messaging app, Telegram. They described the ‘logs’ essentially as insecure login details for apps like PayPal. For, say, £20, you’d be given access to an account and the credit cards associated with that account. Another young person told me you can buy pre-paid credit cards outright on the dark web. These cards are delivered to your house via Royal Mail for you to spend as your own money. When I asked where the credit cards came from, the young person said they didn’t know. 

Other young people talked about what, to me, sounded like online County Lines operations. They reported that pictures of drugs would be uploaded on Snapchat stories that could be seen by any user in a nearby location via Geolocationtechnology. Prices and instructions to buy were detailed over the images. I was told, “Young people, like in year 9, would really want the stuff [weed and mushrooms] so prices can be higher” and “the drugs probably come from the olders. The people selling it get some money.” Another young person told me about Telegram channels, followed by thousands of people, that develop aesthetic ‘drug menus’, listing prices and quantities available to buy and be posted out to you. You simply have to start a ‘secret chat’ with the channel owner, place and pay for your order and wait for the postman to arrive the next day. 

The online/offline divide? 

Throughout my conversations with these young people, I was struck by what I perceived to be a gap, or a chasm, between the on and offline worlds. The behaviours they knew about, especially those that take place in the darker corners of the internet, suggest a disconnect between online action and offline consequences. This disconnect is by no means only a youth issue. 41% of US adults have reported experiencing online abuse, including receiving racial abuse or consistent trolling (this statistic can only count abuse that has been reported). Anecdotally, adults and young people I’ve worked with here in the UK tell me they witness or experience racial slurs or extreme violent threats online regularly, especially in gaming forums. One young person told me they see racist and sexist language “every day… you start not noticing it.”

What these young people told me is that navigating internet spaces is not something they need adults to teach them about. Everyday young people explore online worlds that adults do not know exist and they are savvy enough to understand that the presence of a piece of content does not make it true. What they, and we, need help with is recognising that there is not a gap between what we do and say online and what happens to us offline. I am convinced that most people in the world would not open my bag, take out my purse and steal my credit cards, but I know that this is happening online. I have rarely had anyone shout misogynistic slurs in my face at the dinner table. I have, however, opened my phone over breakfast and seen them written to me on my social media platforms. The consequences of these behaviours, whether online or offline, are painful and unsettling. They damage our sense of safety and interfere with our identities.

Legislative responses

My colleague, Jacob, wrote an excellent piece on the Online Safety Bill which, at the time of writing, is awaiting royal assent into law. The bill proposes one piece of the solution puzzle. It seeks to create safer online spaces for young people and adults by developing more effective restrictions to illegal and ‘harmful’ online content. Significantly, listed as one of these types of content is the selling of illegal drugs and weapons. It also indicates social media companies must make it easier to report illegal or harmful content on their platforms or be heavily fined. I won’t get into the debates surrounding the Online Safety Bill here, you can read about them in Jacob’s piece. That said, even if I assume the legislation worked absolutely and that everyone in the world is happy it was ratified, there still exist huge gaps in our legislative response to online financial crime and exploitation, like that which the young people told me about. 

For example, the Online Safety Bill may provide a more strategic direction for online accountabiity, but it does not give a clear indication of how we, or social media companies and internet providers, should respond to financial crime on the dark web. It does not tell us if or how we can report fraudulent money transfers or theft using AI. Equally, some of the measures that exist within the bill, like the supposed age restrictions to be imposed on harmful content, can be avoided using a VPN. I was told by a young person – “Lots of anti-virus software comes with VPNs so you don’t even have to pay for them. It would be really easy to see the websites, even if they were blocked in this country.” Like much legislation and education related to online safety and literacy, the Online Safety Bill does not attempt to address the underlying social behaviours associated with online harms. How does Ofcom plan on responding to these issues? It is my belief that there is little use in making harmful content easier to report if individuals do not have the behavioural inclination to report it, let alone not to share or create it in the first place. Everyone involved in the safety and wellbeing of young people and communities (in this case Ofcom and those behind the Online Safety Bill are included) needs to work to develop a sense of online, digital citizenship that nurtures these behavioural inclinations alongside the practical, ‘just say no’ style response that encourages literacy, reporting, and removal.   

Conclusions

Recently, I was involved in some research in which we asked members of the public to consider how they may or may not use the police in their daily lives. For the most part, research respondents agreed they would want some response if they saw someone being robbed, threatened, or abused in public. It is frightening that the game-ification of and disassociation with reality prevents people from doing the same thing when they see or experience it in online spaces. I don’t believe these problems will begin to be solved as long as we remain committed to the assumption that our online behaviour is in some way less real than our offline behaviour. We must bridge this gap, expose it as the falsity it is. To do this, if you work with young people and communities, I’d encourage you to:

  • Engage in discussions about the online and offline consequences of specifically online behaviours – focus on the feelings they might have if they experienced fraud or theft, for example. These techniques underpin the desire to create Digital Citizens, individuals who behave with responsibility and respect in all spaces, including online. I found this page a helpful start when learning more about Digital Citizenship because of its focus on developing online empathy. The producer of this content, a Canadian organisation called Media Smarts, have also developed some nice video resources. 
  • Understand the law – there are legal consequences to online money-laundering or the possession of (especially terrorist) violent content online. Those engaging in these behaviours might not understand the risk they face if they conceive these behaviours as ‘just making a little extra money’, or watching content that looks like the games they play. 
  • Approach with compassion the legitimate worries young people have about finances and work. At a recent event with the Children’s Society, young people shared they felt unsure of how to get work, or if they could ever be successful in a job. One young person had never heard of a CV. It can be helpful when working with young people to empathetically acknowledge this difficulty and concern. It is a frightening time for them, especially.
  • Help young people consider how their existing skills and experiences could support them in a work-place environment. For example, how might a young person who enjoys creating online films understand this as a valuable skill if, to them, it comes second-nature? Reflective conversations about the skills young people develop in all spaces can help them feel more able to access finances through work that won’t get them in trouble – online or offline. 
  • Stay up-to-date and engaged with what is happening online via excellent resources like those created by one of our partner organisations, ParentZone. We are proud to have recently completed a report commissioned by Parent Zone as part of the Child Financial Harms programme that is supported by Nominet. 
  • More generally, we have some great prompting questions on how to have difficult conversations with young people that you can find here if you feel like you want more guidance. 

At ConnectFutures, we create and deliver projects that seek to develop a sense of citizenship, respect, and intolerance to hate that extends across online and offline worlds. We want and believe that the same moral instincts and consequences that (mostly) prevent our harmful offline behaviours can still exist when we open our laptops or turn on our gaming consoles. We want people to understand that their treatment of others in offline spaces should match their treatment of others in online spaces, developing digital citizens of all ages in all spaces.