DRAFT: Online & mobile safety guide for seniors

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As of 2014, nearly 60% of Americans over 65 were Internet users, according to a Pew Research survey1, and that number will only get bigger over time. The Internet is a great way to read the latest news, stay in touch with family, get medical information and manage appointments, renew prescriptions and access medical records. It’s how many of us shop and bank without leaving our homes. For an increasing number of seniors, it’s a way to stay in the workforce, or launch a new career or business.

And if it feels like most of your friends are on Facebook, you’re right – another 2014 study2 found that 56% of online seniors use Facebook, and that’s just one of the major social networking services.

The reasons seniors go online are as varied as the users themselves but they include:

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  • Keeping in touch with family and friends
  • Renewing old friendships
  • Meeting new friends or romantic partners
  • Participating in social and cultural activities
  • Online banking, shopping and investing
  • Making travel arrangements
  • Getting medical advice and information including doctor reports and test results
  • Sharing and viewing pictures
  • Exploring and sharing political views
  • And much more.

Tips for seniors 

Like all powerful tools, the Internet and mobile technologies come with some risks. For the most part, these risks can be managed and minimized as long as you follow some basic rules of the road.

Use strong and unique passwords and never share your passwords with anyone, unless you have designated someone you trust to manage your accounts. Make sure your passwords have at least eight characters. Include numbers, upper and lower case letters and symbols that are not names or dictionary words. At ConnectSafely.org, you’ll find password tips and information on how to use multi-factor authentication and fingerprint recognition for even better security.

Be wary of any offer that’s too good to be true such as being told you’ve won a contest that you didn’t enter or an incredible price on a vacation or product that’s way below what you’d expect to pay. Be especially careful about offers for low-cost medications or medical coverage.

fishingDon’t click on links in email from banks, credit card companies, government agencies or other organizations, unless you’re 100% certain they are legitimate. There is a common scam, called phishing, where someone sends you a link to what looks like the real website of a bank or other organization that’s actually a scam site created by criminals to steal your information. Even if the company name is part of the web address, it could still be a scam. Your safest bet is to type in the Web address like you normally do. If in doubt, call the organization.

Beware of charity scams. You may get an email from what appears to be a charity asking you to make an online donation. If you’re not familiar with the organization, check it out at CharityNavigator.org and if you are going to donate online, be certain that you’re going to the charity’s legitimate site and that it’s not an imposter site. CharityNavigator has more tips for protecting yourself against online charity scams.

Don’t send money to anyone, including a family member or friend, based only on an email or social media message. A common scam is to post messages that appear to be from someone you know saying they are in distress, such as having their wallet stolen or having been arrested. If you get such a message, find another way to verify if it’s true, such as reaching out directly to the person. Chances are that it’s a scam from a criminal who is out to steal your money.

Protect against identity theft. Never enter your Social Security number online unless you know you are at a legitimate site that has a real need for that information such as applying for a bank account or a loan (from a legitimate financial institution) or getting a credit report (such as the legitimate free annual credit report services authorized by the Federal Trade Commission). Avoid posting your full birthdate and place of birth and be cautious whenever you are asked to enter any other personal information such as your address. Only disclose credit card numbers to legitimate online merchants. When in doubt, do some searching to see what people say about them.

Monitor your online financial accounts. Look for recent activity to be sure that there are no fraudulent changes to your credit, debit or bank accounts. Check your online investment accounts to make sure there has been no unauthorized activity. If you find something suspicious, report it right away to the financial institution’s fraud department or the toll free number on your credit or debit card.

Don’t respond to messages or phone calls telling you that your computer is infected. You might get a call from “Microsoft,” saying your computer is infected or vulnerable to hacking, with an offer to fix it for you. Hang up. Microsoft and other reputable companies never make these calls. These are criminals trying to steal your money and plant viruses on your machine. Also be suspicious of any messages in email or that pop-up on your computer, in your Web browser or on a mobile app warning you of an infection or a security risk. If you have reason to suspect that your device is at risk, consult a trusted expert but never download software or apps that you aren’t certain come from legitimate sources.

Don't click on any virus notices that pop up on your computer or phone

Don’t click on any virus notices that pop up on your computer or phone. They often scams

Only shop at reputable online merchants. Be careful about any online merchant that you have never heard of. Many are legitimate but some might be out to steal your credit card number or other financial information or fail to deliver what you order. When in doubt, ask your friends and family or do a little online research to see if there are reviews or comments about the merchant.

When shopping or banking look for secure websites with an https in the browser’s address bar. The “s” stands for “secure.” If it’s just http, it’s not a secure site. If you shop or bank using a mobile app, be sure it was issued by that company. Look for reviews from others or ask an expert if you’re not sure.

Visa-MastercardUse credit cards if possible, otherwise debit cards or safe online payment services. Never send cash, cashiers checks or money orders. Even sending a personal check can be dangerous. It’s best to use a credit card because, if there is a dispute, the issuer will suspend the charge and investigate your claim. Debit cards also have protections but you have to wait to get your money back. Services like Paypal, Android Pay and Apple Pay also have some protections but credit cards are still the best-bet.

Be wary of anyone who says you owe them money. If you hear from a bill collector or a government agency about money “owed” by you or a family member, don’t respond unless you are certain it’s legitimate. It’s pretty common for scammers to send “bills” to people who don’t actually owe them money.

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Beware of any calls or emails from someone claiming to be with the Internal Revenue Service. They are scams. If the IRS thinks you owe back taxes, they will send you a paper letter the old-fashioned way. When in doubt, check with an attorney or a tax advisor or call the IRS directly.

Avoid online dating scams. Many seniors have met great partners via online dating sites but some have been scammed into parting with their money. With anyone you meet online, there is always the possibility that they may not be who they claim to be. Red flags can include a person who claims or looks to be a lot younger than you or who sends you a picture that looks as if it came from a fashion site. The FBI warns people to be careful about anyone who claims to be from the U.S. who is traveling or working overseas and suggests that you only deal with reputable dating sites. Look for abnormalities in the way a person writes and the type of grammar and words they use. It may not mean anything but it could be a sign that they are in a foreign country and may have no intention of actually meeting you. Be especially suspicious and don’t send money if the person asks for money, perhaps to get on a plane to come meet you or to help them deal with a personal or family catastrophe. Other red flags include the person pressuring you to leave the dating site to communicate via email or text messaging or someone who professes instant feelings of love. Be suspicious of anyone who is never actually available for a face-to-face meeting. Never send money to a person you meet online, even if he or she asks for money to travel to visit you (a common scam).

If you do arrange a meeting with anyone you meet online, make sure the first meeting is in a public place, like a restaurant, and bring along a friend or at least let others know where you’re going to be. Bring along your cell phone and have a friend call you during the meeting just to make sure all is going well.

Don’t send personal information in response to emails from Social Security or Medicare. The Social Security Administration will not use email to ask for personal information, such as your Social Security number or date of birth. When in doubt, call your local Social Security office or 800-772-1213. Be suspicious of anyone posing as a doctor, healthcare provider or insurance company that asks for your Medicare number or who claims to represent Medicare. When in doubt, call Medicare at 800-633-4227.

Be careful before taking online medical advice. There are several reputable sites and apps that provide medical information and advice. Some are useful for such things as understanding how certain drugs work or getting an overview of an illness or a condition, but think twice before acting on anything you read on one of those sites or apps.  Begin by knowing who is behind the site or app. In general, sites operated by the government (ending in .gov) or well regarded medical institutions like Mayo Clinic have reliable information but be aware that some commercial sites, including ones operated by pharmaceutical companies, are there to promote products. There are other sites whose information has not been vetted by medical professionals. Never rely on online advice for diagnosing an illness. Having a symptom association with an illness doesn’t necessarily mean that you have that illness. Always check with a medical doctor or trusted health care provider before taking any action or drugs. Never enter any personal or health information on a site or an app until you are certain that it is legitimate and will respect and protect your privacy.

Protect your devices by ensuring that they are password protected and, in the case of computers, make sure you have good security and firewall software in place. If you need help, reach out to knowledgeable family members or your Internet service provider or mobile operator. Comcast and some other Internet service providers offer free anti-virus software or you can purchase or obtain free security software from a reputable company such as the ones listed at ConnectSafely.org/securityvendors.

Be smartphone savvy. Smartphones can track your location and reveal information about you, including your contacts. Be careful to only download and use reputable apps and be sure to password (or fingerprint) protect your phone. Know how to use tools to find or erase personal data from lost phones. You’ll find more at ConnectSafely.org/cellphone-safety-tips.

Secure your Internet router. There is likely a small device in your home, called a router or broadband modem, that connects you to the Internet. That device has a password and username and sometimes the default passwords are very easy to guess. Routers can be hard to configure so if you’re in doubt, contact an expert or your Internet service provider for advice on how to change the password.

Know how to control your privacy settings. Most social networks services and mobile apps have some type of privacy settings that control who can see what. Look for those and know how to customizes your privacy settings. There are also privacy settings for your smartphone that can restrict who has access to your location, contacts and other personal information.

Know how to report abuse. All major social media companies and online and mobile service providers have employees that respond to abuse complaints. ConnectSafely has links to abuse and privacy pages for major social networking and Internet and mobile service companies.

Speak out and don’t be ashamed if you’re victimized. Criminals are very good at what they do and there have been lots of very smart people who have been victimized online. If it happens to you, report it to a trusted person and law enforcement. Even if you let your guard down, it’s not your fault if something bad happens to you.

Report emotional abuse from anyone, including friends, family and caregivers. We hear a lot about children being “cyberbullied,” but it also happens to adults, including seniors. If you are getting messages on social media or in email that are threatening, mean, extremely angry, accusatory or in any way abusive, don’t respond but reach out for help and support from someone you trust or from adult protective services or law enforcement.

Reach out for help. There are many great places to get help with computers, smartphones and other technology. Many senior centers and some schools, religious and community groups offer free or low-cost classes. There may be family members who can help but don’t overlook others in your community such as tech-savvy high school students (call the school and see if a student can be assigned to help you in exchange for community service hours). Both Apple and Microsoft have stores that offer free advice on products they support and you might also be able to get help from staff at other local stores. Always feel free to contact your cell phone carrier if you have any questions about your phone or you service, including whether you’re on the most economical plan for your needs.

Avoid pressure to buy what you may not need and review your service plans. Even legitimate merchants will sometimes try to talk you into buying equipment or services you may not need. It’s not necessarily a scam, but could be that they simply don’t understand your needs. When buying a cell phone or Internet plan, think about whether you need all the data they want to sell you or that extra speed for an extra price. Once you’ve established service, review it periodically to see if you’re using most of the data or other services you’re paying for. You may be able to save money by downgrading your service.

Advice for seniors considering enlisting help from family members or caretakers

Most seniors are self-sufficient but, as we age, sometimes we need a bit of help. There are many seniors who rely on family members, professional caretakers or professional advisors to help them with their finances, taxes, legal affairs, housing and other issues. Sometimes it’s helpful or even necessary for caretakers to have access to a senior’s online bank and investment accounts, medical records and other online sites. There are various ways that caretakers can access a senior’s accounts but it generally requires some type of power of attorney or other legal authorization. When in doubt, consult an attorney. If you are a senior considering enlisting someone else’s help, be very careful to only authorize someone you trust completely. And, whether you’re the person being helped or the caretaker, consider consulting with an attorney to make sure that all authorizations are in order. The U.S. Government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers advice on having another person help you with banking and finance. One of the discussions on that page includes the advantages and risks of setting up a joint account.

Whatever you do, think very carefully before giving anyone — even a family member — access to any of your accounts including financial, health or social media.

For more, including lists of agencies you can contact if you have been victimized, visit ConnectSafely.org/seniors.


Additional links

National Association of Areas Agencies on Aging

Eldercare locator

Huffington Post section on Seniors and Technology

How Older Adults Can Stay Safe When Dating Online


Image of hand in pocket: Edwind Richzendy Contreras Soto


(c) 2016 ConnectSafely.org