The internet continues to play an increasingly central role in connecting people of all ages to news and information, health resources, government services and opportunities for social support. As a senior citizen, the internet is a place where you can stay in touch with friends and family, reconnect with former acquaintances, keep up with the latest news and happenings, and more. The internet also can also provide you with medical and financial independence.
These are just a few of the reasons that internet usage among seniors has steadily increased in the last years. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of seniors own a smartphone, and 34 percent of those 65 and older are active on social media.
As many benefits as the digital world might afford, there are also significant dangers in using the internet. From phishing scams to identity theft, there are plenty of ways for those who may be less familiar with the inner workings of the online world to be taken advantage of. A 2016 Internet Crime Report shows that the largest group of victims of internet crime in 2016 were over 60. Total loss of collective victims over 60 was also much larger than younger groups before them.
The Pew Research Center also reports that there are a number of hurdles to older adults adopting new technologies. Physical challenges like failing eyesight or arthritis can make a computer difficult to use. Skeptical attitudes regarding the benefits of technology can also contribute to lack of technology adoption, with 35 percent of older non-internet users believing they are better off without it.
Difficulties learning to use the new technology can also provide a barrier for some—77 percent of seniors indicate they would need assistance learning to use a new technology device like a laptop or smartphone. Learning to navigate the internet safely is something everyone should know and this guide is designed to do just that.
Click through the sections below to learn about everything from setting up your internet safely to creating strong passwords.
Getting Set Up Online Securely
The first step in online security is connecting to the internet, and understanding the basics of the web/web security.
The first step to ensuring your online security is getting set up and connected to the internet correctly. If you’re unfamiliar with the internet it can seem laborious to complete all the steps necessary to guarantee safe browsing, but it’s absolutely necessary. Use the below steps to setup your machine and ensure it’s safe to use.
- Understand the basics of how to use a computer: After turning the computer on, you will need to set up your user profile and choose your settings.
- How to sign into the computer: During the initial setup of your computer you will be prompted to create a unique username and password used to sign into your computer. Learn how to choose a secure password. When your computer is turned on a sign in screen will appear, allowing you to type in this username and password in order to use the computer. This screen will vary by device, but will almost always lead you straight to your computers dashboard.
- How to access files: You can store documents and photos in what are called “files” on your computer. You can create a file by right clicking your screen, naming the folder, and then dragging any desired files or photos into the folder.
- How to log onto the internet: To log into the internet you will need to open your browser and type in a web address. Browsers can vary: for Microsoft computers the default browser is Internet Explorer, but you can also use Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. On Apple/Mac computers the default browser is Safari, but you can also download Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox as well. Every website has a unique address or URL that must be typed in at the top of the screen.
- Secure your internet router: Once your internet service provider has hooked up your connection they will give you a router. This can be wireless or wired. Ensuring your router is password-protected helps shield you from unwanted attackers, and ensures that no one else will piggyback off your connection. Fortunately, most internet service providers will help you set up a wireless router, which includes setting up a unique username and password for the device. Your router should also come with encryption capabilities built in. Ensure that these are turned on. Turning on the encryption settings can vary by device and carrier, so don’t be afraid to ask for help setting this up.
- Since every router is different, here is a list of some of the most popular ones and links to their support pages for setting up and securing your router:
- Making the device accessible: If you’re physically, hearing- or vision-impaired, you can make your device easier to use by implementing certain add ons. For example, if you have vision issues you can use your device without a screen by using a narrator, use the built-in magnifier, or make apps and text bigger. There’s even a way to read in braille. For the hearing impaired, you can transcribe voice to text, which allows you to hear what’s being said in videos.There are options for mono audio as well as notification timing and closed captioning. There are also modifications for the physically impaired like voice commands and a voice-command activated digital assistant. A numeric keyboard can be used instead of a mouse or you can personalize your keyboard to make it easier to use. There are numerous adaptations to make your device more accessible, and it varies by computer make and model. The guides below can show you what is available on your computer!
- Basics of the internet: Once you’ve opened your browser you can begin to surf the internet. You will be able to search for information on Google and use email and social media websites to communicate.
- Search engines: The most popular search engine, Google, is a wealth of information. The web address for Google is “www.google.com.” Once your browser pulls up the website you will see a search bar in the middle of the screen. Here you can type in any question and Google will provide a list of search results that correlate with your question. This list can span several pages. Usually the first three results that show at the top of the first search page are the most reliable or closest matches to your search.
- Social Media: Social media sites can be a great way to keep in touch with family and friends. These websites allow you to have conversations, connect via message or view pictures of the other person’s life. The most popular social media sites are Facebook Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, and they all have different features and specialties. To access these, you will need to create a username and password.
- Email: You will want to set up an email account once you’re online so that you can send email to your friends and family. This will also act as the method by which you receive login credentials to other sites such as social media sites, so this will be one of the first things you will need to do. There are many free email providers like Gmail, Yahoo or Microsoft Outlook Simply go onto their website, choose a unique login and password (learn how to choose a secure password) and submit some basic information. Once you’re set up, you should be able to compose and send an email, as well as receive those that are sent to you.
- Start with effective security practices: Follow the basic security practices below to ensure that your device, and the information it houses, is safe.
- Installing anti-virus software: It’s incredibly important to install a strong anti-virus software onto your computer. This software will protect you from malicious “viruses” or “malware” that can infect your computer and steal sensitive information.You can protect your computer against these by choosing a robust anti-virus program and keeping it up to date. Anti-virus software alerts you when your computer is at risk of contracting a virus, scans your computer for harmful files, and quarantines or destroys them.
- Setting your computer to automatically update: To ensure that your computer always has the most up to date applications and capabilities, it’s good practice to set your computer to update automatically.
Creating a Strong Password
Passwords are a large part of what keeps online information secure. Once you’ve set your internet up, you will need to know how to create strong passwords to keep yourself safe online. Simply using a familiar word or phrase is not enough, steps need to be taken to ensure your password cannot be cracked by a human OR a computer.
Creating a strong password is key to keeping your online information secure.
- Don’t make password too short: Choose a password that is a long, random string of letters and numbers that people or computers can’t easily guess. Short, hard-to-read passwords that contain letters and numbers may look complicated to humans, but to a computer they’re relatively easy to crack. Hackers use computer software that can generate hundreds of guesses per minute!
- Don’t use a common phrase: Similar to short, seemly random words, computers can recognize common phrases if they are used often by other people. While you may think that your phrase is unique, chances are that it’s been used before. It’s best not to use a phrase at all. Again, using a random string of letters and numbers is best.
- Don’t use sensitive information: Using sensitive information, such as your social security number, as a password is incredibly dangerous because it relies solely on that information remaining secret. If your number leaks even once, your information is left vulnerable to attackers.
- Don’t use easily obtained information/personal information: Information that is public record should be avoided when creating a secure password. In this day and age, so much information can be found about a person online that attackers often use public information, such as maiden names, as a base point for cracking your password. The same goes for information that is widely known, such as children’s birthdays or pet names.
- Don’t just use letters:Always use a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. There is software available that can generate and store these passwords for you, eliminating the need to write down or remember them. Lastpass, Password Boss and LogMeOnce are just a few of great programs available for little to no cost.
- Don’t store passwords in your browser: While it’s convenient to store your passwords so that they automatically fill in, it can lead to trouble. If your devices are stolen and the initial password you set is somehow cracked, the thief can gain access to all of your personal accounts without any trouble. Alternatively, if a hacker ever takes control of your computer remotely over the internet, they would have immediate access to your sensitive information. Storing passwords in this manner can also make them vulnerable to family members or visitors who might have malicious intent.
- Don’t share your password: While it might seem harmless, sharing your password can lead to a breach if it gets in the wrong hands. Even something as simple as sharing with a family member or loved one can open the door for a malicious attack. This is especially true if you use the same password for multiple accounts.
- Don’t reuse the same password for all the sites you’re on: Most Americans use one password that they think is secure for multiple or all of their accounts. Unfortunately, this leaves them incredibly vulnerable. Often, attackers will target a website that’s highly used, but not necessarily the most secure. If they can easily access and steal the less secure password, they will automatically have access to your more secure information.
Understanding Computer Security
These days, our computers house a wealth of personal and confidential information. It’s incredibly important that this information stays private and out of the hands of potential criminals.
Follow this basic protocol to keep your computer, and the information on it, safe.
As such, ensuring that basic computer security is implemented is especially important if you’re not as familiar with the digital world.
There are some basic steps to take on the road to internet security which everyone should take.
- Password-protect all of your devices: Choosing not to password protect your devices can leave you exposed to potential dangers. It’s the digital equivalent of leaving your home or car unlocked—you can hope that nobody will access it, but they certainly could. Choose a password that is complex and not easy to crack (learn how to create a secure password).
- Keep anti-virus software and your computer up to date: Upwards of 6,000 new computer viruses are being developed each day. Keeping your anti-virus software and system up to date is imperative if you want to stay ahead of the game. Most anti-virus software companies release updates regularly and are constantly developing new ways to keep your computer safe. Having significantly out-of-date anti-virus software is almost as bad as not having any at all.
- Log out when you’re not using your device: Logging out when you’re finished using your device goes hand-in-hand with having a password on the device. It doesn’t do any good to have your computer password-protected if you leave it unlocked when unattended.
- Be careful when logging in onto public Wi-Fi access points: Public Wi-Fi can be found in places like coffee shops and airports. However, accessing these points can put your information at risk. If you are prompted to put in a password to access the network, ensure that you know the source is legitimate, and try not to log into any websites that contain sensitive information. Be sure to disable your file sharing (if enabled) and only visit sites that have an HTTPS in the URL.
- Use a VPN: When logging onto public Wi-Fi points, use a VPN to keep your information secure and safe from would-be hackers. A VPN secures and encrypts your internet connection, ensuring that no one can see the information you’re transmitting.This is particularly useful when using open access points, VPNs also provide added privacy on familiar networks, as they block entities, such as your internet service provider, from gathering—and possibly selling—your data.
- Educate yourself: Keep yourself informed about the latest and most common scams, and potential ways that attackers can steal your data. Know what is safe to click on and what is better left alone. Learn what spam emails look like, as well as clickbait websites, and be able to identify offers that seem too good to be true. Practice safe surfing and shopping techniques so that they become second nature, and ensure that you remain cautious about what sites you’re visiting and what you share online. You can type “online data scams + the year” into Google’s search bar to get some good resources. Here are some resources to start with:
One of the more common ways people steal data online is by enticing people to click malicious links through fraudulent emails. Known as “phishing attacks,” these scams are one of the most common threats to computer users. As such, it’s important for you to understand what phishing attacks are and how to recognize and avoid them.
Phishing scams usually come in the form of fraudulent emails appearing to come from a legitimate source. The message may appear to come from well-known company, bank or your internet service provider. They will usually say something indicating that your account has been compromised and you’ll be directed to click a link to resolve the issue. When you enter your information to “log in,” it is stolen by the attacker.
Phishing scams, often in the form of fraudulent emails that appear to be from a legitimate source, are one of the most common ways people steal data online.
Types of Phishing Attacks
Often these emails will aim to create a sense of panic or urgency, encouraging the reader to click the link immediately for fear of losing something. They come in several different forms, but the most common include:
- Mass-scale phishing In this type of attack, criminals “cast a wide net” by sending emails en mass that are not necessarily highly targeted. They are going for quantity, not quality, in hopes that the sheer number of emails sent will generate profitable results. You can protect yourself from this attack by spotting the classic phishing signs, covered below.
- Spear phishing: Much more targeted, spear phishing attacks are directed at certain individuals, roles or organizations. Since the attacks are so targeted, they can afford to use personal details to make the scam more believable—thus increasing their likelihood for success. Avoid these by being aware of what data of yours is readily available and thinking twice before answering “random” requests that might reference that data.
- Whaling: This form of spear phishing is directed specifically at high-profile targets, usually within a business, government or another organization. There is often a tremendous amount of effort put into whaling, as the reward is higher.
How to Spot a Phishing Email
Learning how to spot a phishing email is the best way to protect yourself against them. These emails usually look like a normal email from a reputable brand. Sometimes they have logos, email addresses that look legitimate, and may even have your name and some account information. If you’re at all suspicious, things to look out for include:
- Grammatical errors: If there are several spelling or grammatical errors, it’s unlikely that the email came from a reputable source.
- Scare tactics: Scare tactics designed to get you to click on a link are signs of a phishing scam; most companies will not impose fees or threaten to cut off service via email.
- Compressed or embedded attachments: Files attached to an email, especially when they are compressed, could contain malicious software. Verify that the source is legitimate before downloading. Common file attachments that contain malicious macros can be .doc, .xls, .ppt or .etc, and they will often look like regular attachments. Again, if you’re not sure that the sender is legitimate, avoid downloading until you’ve verified.
- Spoofed links: There are programs online that allow anyone to take a URL for a website and shorten it, or disguise the link’s destination. This can be used to take any website, even malicious and spammy ones, and make them look like the link came from a legitimate website. If you hover your mouse over the link in the email, you should be able to see the correct address in the bottom left hand corner of your browser.
- Spoofed websites: These scams will often imitate the sign in screen of the website they’re pretending to be. They can look legitimate, but are designed to steal the information you submit, or distribute malware to visitors. Always carefully check the URL for any misspellings or variations from their verified website.
Recognizing Online Scams
Unfortunately, as a senior citizen, you’re often vulnerable to online scams. While seniors are using technology more than ever, they are assumed to be less proficient with technology, and are targeted by criminals target them online. There are several different kinds of prevalent online scams that target more mature age groups. They can range from minor to serious, and usually have the intent of stealing money or personal data. In this chapter, we’ll cover some of the most prevalent scams and how to identify them.
There are several online scams you should be aware of, which specifically target adults in mature age groups.
- Personal emergency scam: A personal or family emergency scam takes advantage of the victim’s kindness and generosity. Scammers will pretend to be someone you know—a friend or family member—in distress. They may call or send messages urging you to wire money immediately. They will often say they need help with an emergency like getting out of jail, paying a hospital bill or getting out of a foreign country. It’s their hope that you will panic and send the money before verifying the information.Social networking sites make this relatively easy, as criminals can sleuth out personal information about people close to you, or create a fake profile to impersonate them. They can even hack the email account of someone you know. To make their story more legitimate, they may involve multiple people in the scam.Be cautious if anyone insists money be sent right away, and always verify with another close relative before sending money to anyone. Avoid wiring money if at all possible, as it’s similar to cash. Once it’s gone, it can’t be returned. If contacted by a loved one in trouble, resist the urge to act immediately and verify the story with someone or ask them questions that a stranger couldn’t possibly answer.
- IRS scams: IRS scams center around the attacker posing as a bill collector or government agency. They will often claim that the you owe money or back taxes. This is usually done in the form of a phone call or an official-looking email. These communications will be aggressive in nature and will often label the matter as urgent. The criminals are trained to sound convincing and can sometimes become hostile and insulting if you push back.The IRS issued a statement warning about these fraudulent communications and assuring that “the IRS doesn’t do business like that.” They urge users to safeguard personal information at all times and to not give their personal or credit card information out.Remember, the IRS will never call or email to demand immediate payment or ask for payments to be made out to third parties. They will never threaten to immediately involve law enforcement or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
- Catfish scams: In a “catfish” scam, people pretend to be someone they’re not online, often with the intent of asking you to send them money once they’ve built rapport with the you. This is often done be on social networking sites or on dating sites. Unfortunately, windowed older Americans are targeted most often, and those over 65 are 34% more likely to have lost money in a financial scam than people in their 40s. One example of this is the “sweetheart scam” in which criminals contact individuals (often older women) and establish a bond. They will often persuade the victim to take the conversation off the site, bypassing any safeguards the dating site may have.The scammer will proclaim their “love” for the victim and then make up an emergency for which they need money. Similar to the personal emergency scam, they will say they have medical bills, are trapped in another country or are dealing with some other urgent issue.Avoid being the victim of these scams by never wiring money to anyone you’ve met online, no matter how dire their situation seems. If someone you have bonded with online is asking for money, chances are they are not who they say they are.
- Tech support scams: Attackers take advantage of people’s lack of confidence in and knowledge of computer programs by claiming that their computer has been infected by a virus. Sometimes they have already infected the computer with malware and can generate pop-up messages that urge victims to contact customer support or download something to fix the problem.This can lead to victims allowing the scammer remote access into their computer, which enables the hacker to download malware or viruses onto the computer, or steal sensitive information.
- Malicious links: As with some of the other scams, malicious links can pop up on less credible sites and entice victims into entering their personal information or download malware onto their computers. The best way to avoid coming into contact with these malicious links is to stick to reputable websites from companies that you trust. Be aware that scams abound that entice people to click a link by offering a “once-in-a-lifetime” prize or experience. Anything that seems too good to be true online likely is.Installing a strong anti-virus program on your computer can ensure that you are alerted to and protected against ransomware, viruses, malware and other online threats.
Online Banking Security
The world of online banking is more prevalent than ever. It can provide flexibility and convenience, especially for people who have limited mobility. These online banking systems provide a way to pay bills without physical challenges, and offer financial independence from caretakers or family members.
Online banking provides flexibility and financial independence, but comes with risk.
Online banking allows you to view your bank accounts online, pay bills, transfer funds and even deposit checks remotely. All you need is a computer or a smartphone, and the knowledge of how to conduct the transactions. While banks are working hard to make online banking safe and enjoyable for everyone, the convenience comes with a risk. To properly protect your information, ensure that the following steps are taken and best practices implemented.
Tips for Online Banking Safety
- Protect your information with a strong password: Use a strong password and a recognizable user ID that you keep stored in a secure place. Employ the password best practices outlined in chapter two when creating your online banking profile, ensuring it’s long, random and includes different characters.
- Don’t use sensitive information in your ID or password: Once a criminal finds out some sensitive information about a victim, they can use it to try to crack more secure accounts.
- Ensure that the website is encrypted: Look for the “HTTPS” in front of the website’s URL; this indicates a secure connection. Any website that does not have a secure connection—especially if it’s a banking website—should raise a red flag.
- Use caution when giving personal information: Never enter your Social Security number online unless you’re using a legitimate site that you know would need that information.
- Monitor your online banking balance and sites for signs of fraud: Any out of place purchases or large drafts from the account should raise red flags.
- Only access your online banking account in secure locations like your home: If you are accessing a financial site in a public location, be cautious of using public Wi-Fi access points.
- Don’t enter sensitive banking information via email: Be suspicious of any emails that ask for banking information such as account numbers, PINs or passwords. Most banks will not ask you for that private information via email.
- Don’t store sensitive banking information on your phone: If your phone is lost or stolen that information becomes available to whoever breaks your phone’s security code—assuming you have one.
- Don’t send sensitive information through unsecured emails: Gmail and Outlook both have encryption features as the default, but their effectiveness depends on the recipient’s email settings as well. It’s a good rule of thumb to avoid sending secure information via email at all, as it’s difficult to determine if the connection is truly secure.
- Consider using a mobile application: Many online banking sites have a mobile application that you can download onto your smartphone. Mobile banking apps often have extra layers of security, such as fingerprint authentication, which safeguards your information in the event that your phone is lost or stolen. Additionally, these apps are typically a more secure way of accessing your banking information than using a mobile browser, particularly when you’re in a public space and accessing public Wi-Fi.
Online Healthcare Security
There are some extremely helpful and useful websites and apps that provide medical information or advice (see some here). With the click of a button, you can find more information about a certain medication or illness, or get information about insurance providers or perks.
Online healthcare resources can provide valuable information and needed support, but are often not medically vetted and should be treated with caution.
- Exercise caution in forums: There are online forums where people who share the same ailments can swap stories and experiences, get questions answered or find support. This can be extremely valuable for if you have questions about what ails you. However, you should be cautious when your medical information online or acting on advice you receive online.
- Be cautious when relying on the internet for medical advice: Know who is behind the site or app, and always verify information you receive in an online forum. Generally speaking, most sites operated by the government (ending in .gov) or highly respected medical institutions will have reliable information. Do be aware that there are also commercial sites that are just trying to sell their product, and people on unofficial forums who might not be qualified to give medical advice.
- Always consult with more than one source: Source data from multiple websites and, when dealing with more serious issues, consult your medical professional in person. This can help you avoid scams or avoid being sold unnecessary products. Never act on advice given by an unverified source without first checking with your medical professional.
- Ensure that the website you’re finding the information on is reputable: There are websites and forums online that house information that hasn’t been verified by professionals. Some of these websites may even be trying to sell unnecessary or ineffective products. Always consult a medical professional before buying products or implementing advice. Not all sites, even if they look legitimate, have been written/vetted by medical professionals.
- Guard your medical information closely: Never enter sensitive health or personal information on a website unless you are certain it’s legitimate. Examples of legitimate sites are your healthcare provider or your doctor’s online portal. Double check the URLs of these websites if you arrived at them through a link and did not type the address into the address bar yourself. Avoid leaving your healthcare or insurance websites open when you’re not at your computer, especially if you’re on a public or shared computer.
- When in doubt, double check: Be suspicious of anyone sending you emails or messages claiming to be a doctor, a healthcare provider, an insurance company or a Medicare provider. If they ask for personal information they are likely fraudulent, as these companies won’t discuss sensitive information over an unsecure email. If you’re ever in doubt, call your doctor, insurance provider or the Medicare office directly. Medicare representatives can be reached at 800-633-4227.
10 Steps for Staying Safe Online
Follow these tips to stay safe online.
Being less familiar with the online world can leave you open to attacks by scammers and hackers. To recap the information briefly, there are several basic steps you can take to ensure your safety online.
- Create strong passwordsCreate passwords that cannot be easily cracked by a human or a computer. The most secure passwords are a long string of random numbers, letters and symbols. Learn more about creating strong passwords in Chapter 2.
- Use privacy settings on social websitesAlways be cognizant of what information you’re putting onto social media. Changing your privacy settings from “Public” to “Private” or “Friends Only” can help keep your information safe, but is not foolproof.
- Be wary of spam email or email from unknown sendersBe aware of common scam or fraudulent email tricks, and avoid sending your personal information via email. Be aware of the common types and signs of phishing scams, and be wary of clicking on links from unverified sources.
- Report abuseIf you suspect you’ve been the victim of online abuse, report it immediately. The sooner you report fraudulent or suspicious activity, the sooner you can work toward getting resolved.
- Watch for red flags when meeting strangers onlineWhen meeting new friends or love interests on dating sites or social media, be sure to watch for signs that they may be deceiving you. If there is indication that your new acquaintance is in another country, either traveling or living permanently, be wary of scams.
- Don’t send money to people you don’t know over the internetIt’s very important to avoid sending money to anyone you haven’t met in person. No matter the reason, don’t send or wire money to a stranger.
- Don’t click on links in emails or on social media websites unless you’re sure they’re legitimateThese links can lead to fraudulent websites designed to steal your data or install malware onto your computer.
- Be wary of offers from banking organizations or travel companiesThe general rule of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Any outrageous or once-in-a-lifetime offers from banking or travel organizations should be met with suspicion.
- Shop online at stores you know to be legitimateStores that are not legitimate could be less secure than the bigger companies, putting your personal information at risk.
- Only use verified payment sourcesUse only verified sources such as PayPal if at all possible, and exercise caution if you must enter your credit card information.
Use these verified resources to vetted information online.
There are several online resources that you can use to gain information and understanding of the online world. These websites have been vetted, are from reputable sources and contain valuable information. Use them to verify information or simply make your life easier!
Healthcare and Medical Websites
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Citizens for Health
Citizens for Patient Safety
Consumer and Patient Health Information Section (CAPHIS) of the MLA
Consumer Health Information Corporation
Empowered Patient Coalition
Health Care For All’s Consumer Health Quality Council
Hospice Patients Alliance
Institute for Safe Medication Practices
Institute of Medicine
National Coordination Counsil for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention
National Council on Patient Information and Education
National Empowerment Center
National Institute of Health
National Institute on Aging
Partnership for Patient Safety
Partnership for Patients
Center for Medical Consumers
Patient Safety Institute
Federal Government Websites
While the internet can be an incredibly useful and convenient place, it can also be a dangerous one. Now that you’re familiar with the basics of the internet, password safety, social media and email safety, banking and online healthcare safety, and know how to spot scams, you will be able to browse with confidence!