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You're Grounded!

Those same Net filters used to keep young surfers on the straight and narrow can also save parents a bundle

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Offline, it’s pretty much impossible to use Mom and Dad’s Visa: A 10-year-old boy slapping down the plastic in Macy’s is fairly suspect. Online, though, it’s easy enough: All he needs is a card number and an expiration date, and voila — four dozen Pokemon dolls are on the doorstep the next day.

What to do? Parents unable or unwilling to have a little sit-down with the kid can boot up a Net filter. Though originally created to screen out smut, many filters now allow parents to limit or block credit-card access. ”E-commerce is a big area where kids can get into trouble,” says Nika Herford, vice president of public affairs for Net Nanny Software (www.netnanny.com), a popular filtering program. ”[Children using credit cards] has always been a problem.”

All filtering programs function the same way: Besides denying access to certain websites, they allow the user to key in specific words or sites that will get blocked when encountered. Preprogram something like, say, ”Pamela Anderson Lee,” and when the phrase is typed on screen, the software sends the user a warning, compiles a log for parents, and, in some cases, shuts down the Web browser. It’s just as easy, Herford says, to key in credit-card numbers or other personal information.

As an added precaution, some filtering programs can be set to convert designated characters into gibberish, so that typing in a credit-card number might result in something like @#$! )(*$ )()*$@. Of course, then your kid might be suspected of using profanity. But that’s another problem.