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Online Safety for Seniors

Today’s seniors are spending more and more time online. From managing their finances through online banking, to keeping up with friends and family on social media, seniors are among the fastest growing age group of internet users. The internet is a great way to get news, medical information, pay bills, find love, work from home and shop. But like all tools, the Internet and mobile technologies come with some risks. These risks can be managed by following some basic rules.

Communicating with friends and family

Telephone calls, texting, or even video calls are a great way to communicate with family and friends. Most people remember spending a lot of money on long distance calls and not being able to talk as frequently or for as long as desired in an effort to minimize that cost. However, new technology has made it so that we can call almost anyone for free or just a few cents a minute. We can now use the Internet to make video calls through services such as Skype or Facebook Messenger. Pen and paper letters are largely replaced by email and instant messages, and social media sites such as Facebook allow us to keep up with our friends and family, share pictures, plan events and more.

Safety tips

Use strong and unique passwords and never share them with anyone, unless you’ve designated someone you trust to manage your accounts. If you share your password, it makes it possible for someone to impersonate you online and perhaps reach out to your friends and family, who will think it is you, asking for money for an “emergency.”

Make sure your passwords are long, and include numbers, upper and lowercase letters and symbols. Don’t use your name, birthday, social security number, address, children’s or pet’s names. Make sure your password is something that someone wouldn’t easily guess.

Learn and use privacy settings. Most social media services have privacy settings that allow you to control who can see your posts or any other information on your page. You can limit specific posts to allow only friends or even only a few people see them while others can be shared with the world.

Think before you post. Pictures, videos, comments; everything you share is a reflection of you. Make sure anything you post is something you feel good about being associated with and don’t post something you wouldn’t want to share with the world. Even if you limit what you post to just a few people, there’s still a chance that they could copy and share it with the world.

Dealing with “spam” or unsolicited email can be difficult. It’s pretty common to receive junk mail, both online and physical mail. Advertisements from companies, sales offers, credit card offers; the list goes on. However, those that you receive in your e-mail can open you up to bigger problems. Sometimes these are sales ads from companies you have dealt with in the past, in which case there is usually a link somewhere within the email to unsubscribe if you no longer wish to hear from them. However, others appear as offers, or even as other companies. You may receive an email saying that your account with an online store you shop in has been compromised and you should “click this link and sign in to verify your account.” These emails often look legitimate, however when you click the link they can direct you to a website which will download software on your computer to steal your information. The best practice is if you receive unsolicited e-mail, don’t ever click on any links or open any attachments. Simply delete the email. Also, become familiar with your e-mail service’s spam filters as these can help prevent these emails from ever reaching your inbox.


If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is an old adage that we have all heard for years, however it is even truer with the Internet. Some people use the internet as a way to scam people out of their money by presenting a “sale” or offer that seems too good to pass up, or try to scare or trick you into sending money. Here’s some of the most common scams:

Personal emergency scam: Sometimes you may receive an e-mail or social media message that appears to come from someone you know. They will say they have been arrested, have a medical emergency, are stranded, or whatever other emergency. They will then ask you to wire them money with a promise of repayment. If this happens, try to reach out to the person through another means, a phone call, for instance. Verify if the story is true before doing anything else. If you get a message from a friend on social media, call them, there is a good chance that someone hacked into their account and is impersonating them.

You owe money scam: Be cautious of emails that claim you owe money. If you hear from a bill collected 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” or threaten legal action against people who don’t actually owe them money.

Speak out and don’t be ashamed I 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, if appropriate, law enforcement. Even if you let your guard down, it’s not your fault if something bad happened to you.

Meeting new friends and romantic partners

The Internet is a great place to meet people, whether it’s someone who shares your interests or passion for an activity or cause, or a potential romantic partner. There are online groups and forums where people with similar interests meet and communicate. Online dating is also very popular with seniors. This can lead to meeting in person with people either for a community service activity, lunch with an online friend, or perhaps a date.

Safety Tips

If you do decide to meet someone in person, make sure the first meeting is in a public place, like a restaurant. Bring a friend or at least let others know where you’re going to be. You could arrange to have a friend call you during the meeting to make sure everything is going well.

Be aware of online dating scams. There are cases where seniors, as well as younger people, have been scammed into parting with their money and left heartbroken. With anyone you meet online, there is always the possibility they may not be who they claim to be.

Watch for red flags. They can include a person who claims or looks to be a lot younger than you or sends you a picture that looks as if it came from a fashion site. The FBI also warns 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. Be suspicious of anyone who professes almost instant feelings of love or never seems available for a face-to-face meeting as this could be a sign that they are not who they claim to be.

Don’t send money. 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 crisis.

Sharing your views

Social networking sites are a great way to exchange views on a variety of subjects from spots to politics to religion and technology. People often engage in spirited debates online. Here is some general advice to keep a debate friendly and not let things get out of hand.

Keep it civil. It’s fine to disagree with someone but try to remain respectful. Name calling and personal insults/attacks are almost never effective and often end up no only alienating the person they’re aimed at, but others as well. If someone is disrespectful to you, don’t return fire, simply move on. There are plenty of other people to interact with. Keep in mind that as you express your opinions, there is always a chance that others will disagree.

Know fact from fiction. Some things online are simply not true. Sometimes this misinformation is an honest mistake and sometimes it is posted deliberately to smear a public official. Don’t believe everything you read and never share something if you’re not sure it’s true. If you see something posted online and you’re not sure if it’s true, do some research before sharing.

Online shopping, banking, and travel

The internet has had enormous effect on the way people bank, shop, invest and even plan travel. In most cases, the experience has been positive. Online shopping allows you to find items that you might not find locally and it makes comparison shopping much easier. For those with limited mobility, online shopping can be much easier and more convenient than driving to a store. It’s also an easier way to buy gifts for family and friends, even those who live out of town. With online banking, at the click of a mouse you can transfer money between accounts, pay bills, and make investments.

Safety tips

Use strong and unique passwords. Once again, strong passwords are essential. Especially when it comes to protecting your financial information. Make sure you use a password that is unique, do not use the same password for your bank account as you do for your social media account. Also make sure they you are choosing passwords that have upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols in them to make them harder to guess.

Don’t click on links in email or social media from banks, credit card companies or government agencies, unless you are 100% certain they are legitimate. There is a common scam, where someone sends to a link to what looks like a legitimate website, but it’s actually a scam created by criminals to steal your login or other personal information. Even if the company name is part of the web address, it could still be a scam. When in doubt, call the organization in question.

Only shop at reputable online merchants. Be careful about any online merchant that you have never heard of. Many are legitimate, but others might be out to steal your credit card or other financial information, or simply not deliver the products. If you’re not sure, ask someone familiar with online shopping or do some research and read reviews and comments about the merchant in question.

When possible use credit cards, otherwise use debit cards or safe online payment services, such as PayPal. Never send cash, checks, cashier’s checks or money orders. Even sending a personal check can be dangerous. If using a credit card, in the event of a dispute, the credit card company can stop the charge while they investigate the claim. Debit cards also have protections but sometimes you have to wait to get your money back. Overall credit cards offer the best protection.

Be careful before you click. There are certain things that you may not be able to undo, such as buying or selling the wrong stock or buying a non-refundable flight or hotel room. Carefully review all transactions before confirming them. If you do make a mistake contact the company immediately to see if it’s possible to undo it. Many online merchants have a cancellation feature if you act quickly. Also, make sure you understand a merchant’s return policies before purchasing.

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, credit card or loan (from a legitimate financial institution). Unless you’re sure it’s a legitimate site, avoid posting your full birthday and place of birth, and be cautious when asked to enter any other personal information, such as your home address. Legitimate media sites like Facebook and financial institutions may be required to ask for your date of birth. Only disclose credit card numbers to legitimate online merchants. When in doubt, do some research and see what other people say about them.

Monitor your online financial accounts. Look for recent activity to be sure that there are not fraudulent or unauthorized charges 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. Even if you don’t bank online, there is still a risk that you could be a victim of fraud.

Health and well-being

There are excellent sites and apps that provide medical information and advice. Some are useful for such things as understanding how specific drugs work or getting an overview of an illness or condition. There are also forums and online support groups where people with certain medical conditions can get support and advice. These sites can have valuable information, but think twice and ask your doctor before trying any advice or products found on them. In general, sites operated by the government (ending in .gov) or well-regarded medical institutions such as May Clinic have reliable information, but other sites are there to promote products. There are also sites whose information has not been verified by medical professionals. Never enter any personal information or health information on a site unless you are certain that it is legitimate and will respect your privacy.

Overall the internet can be a wonderful tool and resource for information, banking, communication, education and may other uses. However, if certain safety precautions are not taken, you can expose yourself to personal and financial risk. Always be careful what information you give out and who you give it out to. If something seems fishy, trust your gut instinct. If you’re not sure do research, contact the company or person directly through a telephone call and make sure you know who has access to that information.