The Internet is many things to many people, including an accessible source of information, a great place to shop, an easy way to bank and, most importantly, a place to connect with friends and family. Surfing the Internet from the safety of your home can give a false sense of security. The fact is, it can be easy for anyone to fall victim to online scams, fake news, fraud, identify theft and even abuse. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports that “many of the crimes that occur in real life are now done – or at least facilitated – through the Internet. Theft, abuse, and more can be and are being done online.”
Although people of all ages are at risk, statistics show that when it comes to online safety, seniors are more vulnerable. In fact, according to the DHS, “seniors are defrauded at twice the rate of the rest of the population.”
How Seniors Are Targeted Online
Popular ways that scammers or thieves target seniors online include emails or websites for:
- Dating services: The scammer becomes close with the victim and once they gain trust the scammer asks for money or personal information.
- Charitable donations and requests for help: Often the charity isn’t legitimate or the request for help is a lie. The scammer is out to steal money or personal and financial information.
- Health care offers: The old snakeskin salesperson scam, this one is as old as time. The scammer promises to heal or treat conditions using medical breakthroughs that don’t exist. Again the goal here is to steal money or obtain personal and financial information. The treatment simply doesn’t work or is never received.
- Affordable prescription medication: There are legitimate online pharmacy sites, but there are others that are out to scam seniors. They either send medication that isn’t FDA approved, don’t send medication at all or simply steal the senior’s financial or personal information. This scam can be deadly if it results in a senior taking the wrong medication.
- Online auctions and community buy and sell sites: An item is purchased but not received, a lesser quality item is received or the senior is abused or robbed when they meet up to trade the item with the seller.
- Fake news stories: These stories report untrue news that creates a sense of urgency. These fake news articles often end with a request for a donation to “help the cause.”
Just because these dangers exist online doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go online. Study after study reports that seniors who are active online are happier and better connected with family, friends and the world around them. Instead, a shift in awareness is important to stay safe online. Just like you would lock your house and your car, there are safeguards that you can put in place to protect yourself and those you love.
Although these scams require some sort of interaction between the scammer and the senior, whether chatting through an online dating site or believing a fake news story, there are instances where no interaction is needed. For example, a store you shop at (online or in person) could have information stolen that is then used to hack into your bank account, steal your identity or even access your email.
The first step to online safety is to ensure you have secure passwords that are changed frequently and to have a different password for every site or asset that requires one, including your home computer. This is like having a different key for every room in your home, instead of just one key for the front door. With strong, unique passwords you’ll be less vulnerable should your password be stolen. If you use one password for everything, a stolen password means that the thief has access to everything.
How can you remember all these passwords?
When your web browser asks you to save passwords or credit card information, don’t! That’s the equivalent to putting your key under your doormat. Instead, use a secure password management software service such as Passpack.
These types of services require a complicated phrase plus a very secure password to access and, as long as you have that information, you can then login to see all your passwords across sites. Because this software’s business is keeping passwords safe, they have the best security out there. And some of them, like Passpack, are free to use.
A password management system is a great tool for anyone who frequently forgets their online passwords. It means that all the information and access you need is available in one place.
The DHS points out that the common sense rules that you’d apply in the real world apply online. These include:
- Don’t overshare. Cybercriminals and identity thieves don’t have to connect with you to see the information you post. Don’t reveal any personal information to strangers or in public forums. This includes your name, address, age, phone number, birthday, email address, social security number, insurance policy numbers, bank information, doctor’s name, name of your children or grandchildren and the school your grandchildren go to.
- Don’t talk to strangers. Be very careful of people who approach you online. It’s okay to chat with someone you don’t know but be very conscious of the information you share. Don’t open attachments or respond to email messages from people or companies that you don’t know.
- Don’t take candy from a stranger. Be careful of entering contests or joining groups that require you to share your personal information. Don’t accept a trip or prize for something that you didn’t enter. Nothing is free, and emails that say you have a long lost relative who left you a fortune or want to contact you to give you a trip around the world are scamming you. Most legitimate companies don’t ask for personal information over email, and that includes requests to confirm or update your personal information. Don’t do it! Your bank and the government will never communicate with you in this way.
- Be careful who you trust. Make sure the site is legitimate. Sites that end in .edu (education) or .gov (government) are trustworthy. When you’re using an online bank be sure that you’re on the right page (look for https://). It’s important to type the bank address directly in the address bar; don’t follow links to your bank (or other sites where you will need to put in personal information like a password). Your bank must have a padlock icon and any online shopping you do should also have the padlock icon, which means that the site is secure.
- Check your credit card statements. If you bank or shop online then you need to check your credit card and bank statements on a regular basis to ensure that there is no suspicious activity. If there is, then you should report it right away.
- Do your business at home. You wouldn’t go to a friend’s house to do your banking, so don’t bank or shop on a public computer (like at the library) or over WiFi. It’s simply not as secure as your home computer.
What’s Real and What’s Fake?
A recent study showed that 64% of U.S. adults felt that “made-up news caused a great deal of confusion about basic facts of current events.” Before you can determine what type of stories out there are real and which ones are fake, you first have to know what fake news is. According to the Globe and Mail, fake news is disinformation for profit, political gain or crime; viral pranks; or unethically reporting a hoax or fake news story as fact.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what type of news, stories and websites are real and which ones are fake. Think it’s easy to spot fake news? Take this fun quiz from the Globe and Mail and see how well you’re able to spot the fake news story!
When it comes to news, here are some tips to help you figure out what information you can trust:
- Trust your intuition. If your first reaction is “this can’t be real,” then listen to your gut and do some further digging.
- What is the motive? Legitimate news should be unbiased. If the motive is to sell a product, service or idea, or to push a political ideology then you could be dealing with fake news, or news that is being reported in a questionable way.
- Look at the source. Do you trust the source of the news story? Legitimate news stories source their information, usually with a hyperlink or a list of their sources at the bottom of the story. Check out the author’s sources to see if they are also legitimate. A news story without legitimate sources requires further digging before you should trust it.
- Dig deeper. Some news outlets like The New Yorker are trustworthy because they have been reporting legitimately for years. But that doesn’t mean that you should automatically believe them. Even with sources you trust you should still:
- Look at how the story is written. Is it written in a different or strange way? Is the grammar poor? It’s possible you’ve landed on a fake site masquerading as a legitimate one.
- Check the URL. Is there a typo or country code you don’t recognize? Look for subtle changes, like an l being written as a 1.
- Verify the social media account. Do they have a large following?
- Verify the webpage. Do the other pages on the website look legitimate? What about the About Us page?
- Double-check email. Is the sender’s address correct?
- Get a second opinion. If the story is real news then it’s probably being reported by other legitimate news outlets. Take a look and see who else is covering the story, and how they are covering it.
- Are you being asked to do something? If you receive a request for money or your personal information, don’t give it. Legitimate news sites don’t ask for your contact information or financial support.
When it comes to staying safe online, it’s important to use security measures, your common sense and to dig deeper for the truth. Sure, this takes some time and diligence on your part, but these are critical steps to keeping you safe, no matter what your age.
Have you or a loved one fallen victim to an online scam, fraud or fake news story? Share your experiences to help others avoid the same online traps.