Innnards: Can a web site charge me even though I never provided a credit card?

As the author of the WWW FAQ, I regularly answer questions about the workings of the Web. If a question is frequently asked, I simply add an article to the FAQ. But sometimes a question is more detailed, more in-depth— not really a FAQ, but still of interest to others. You'll find those questions, with my answers, here in Innards along with commentary on other web-technology-related topics.


Q. Please help, I am in a bit of a dilemma! i have just had broadband installed. My children aged 3 and 6 have been playing on it. To my horror, they accessed a porn site by accident. The site offered porn downloads for a monthly charge. They pressed the bar to agree to the terms. I am afraid I will be charged for this, even though the site does not have my account details. Can they still charge me? What can i do? Please help!

A. First: relax! An ordinary web page has no access to your credit card information unless you go out of your way to provide it. So keep your credit cards away from the kids and don't worry that you will somehow wind up with mysterious charges on your Visa.

Second: there are a lot of porn sites out there. The names of many are misspellings of popular sites, and others are "squatters" on names that really ought to be something more useful, relying on the hope that people will type those words in the address bar. Is this a problem? Yes, because it does mean that minors may occasionally see the "teaser page" of a pornographic web site.

How do you prevent your children from seeing these things? By supervising their Internet use very closely and steering them firmly to web sites that are appropriate for them. If they have a separate computer, it should be in the same room with yours. Don't put Internet-enabled computers in the bedrooms of small children, and don't apologize for snooping on the Internet habits of older children.

Also, don't rely on Internet filtering software, except perhaps for very young children. Such programs filter far too much and can lead to legitimate frustration and creative workarounds by older children who can't get their homework done! That article about the legal status of abortion (for example) shouldn't be filtered as pornography when a 16-year-old is doing his civics homework... but too often it is.

Finally, pornography (whether viewed on purpose or by accident) is not the biggest danger to your kids online by a long shot. Online predators in chat rooms and forums are far more dangerous. At your children's present ages, concern about upsetting pornographic images is perfectly valid. But as your children grow older, supervising your child's communications with others on the Internet should be a higher priority than policing dirty pictures.

See my article how do I keep my children safe on the Internet? for details on the best ways to keep your kids safe online.