8 Tips for Keeping Seniors Safe Online
February 27, 2020
We all want to encourage older folks to stay engaged in the community, to be up-to-date on topics, events, and social conversations – yet at the same time, it’s okay to worry that technology, and scams, in particular, might outpace their ability to resist. Seniors must know how to check someone’s identity using background check services, to restrain access to their financial accounts, and to be skeptical when approached by a scammer through advertising, email, or social media. During winter, while recuperating from an illness or injury, or when driving becomes difficult, seniors rely more often on telephone and computer connections to stay in touch with the outside world. As they age, these opportunities to touch base become increasingly important. Without the opportunity to call or otherwise connect, elders feel isolated and may get lonely and depressed. Likewise, making a mistake online may trigger feelings of futility and frustration. Making it easier for an elder to stay in touch directly impacts his quality of life. Most online scams are nothing but age-old snake oil sales masquerading as the newest item or drug they need, but in total, seniors are scammed for some $36 billion annually through telemarketing, internet, and other fraud schemes. Does the elderly person in your life understand that many companies are following their browsing habits using invisible “cookies” on their computer hard drives? These cookies are tracking devices that allow advertisers and scammers to send targeted messages in the form of advertisements, pop-up ads, and even malware that can shut down a computer and hold its content hostage. Keep your parent, neighbor, or elderly relative safe online by using these tips:
- Find a trusted local computer technician, preferably one who does brief in-home visits to clean computer files, help with questions, and maintain the hard drive through updates. As a birthday or holiday gift, you may schedule a couple of visits a year for check-ups or open an account for your elder to call that person for help when necessary. Encourage your senior friend to keep a pad next to the computer and jot down questions or issues, like getting a pop-up ad blocker installed, or explaining how to operate the online chat functions.
- Buying a car online can cause a lot of stress, especially in the case when sellers try to run a scam on you. Know as much information about your car as possible to escape from such a bad experience. Many online tools provide vehicle ownership information and can help you to get acquainted with the history of your car.
- Acute decision-making systems get rusty with age. Seniors who are constantly assaulted by pop-up ads that aggressively target them, particularly those “tech support scams” that assert that their computers are infected with dangerous malware and may shut down, are likely to respond out of innocence and frustration. Although these are common malware schemes, feeling insecure about computer operation makes older folks particularly vulnerable to rip-offs like this that claim to “rescue” their computers from a hacker when in fact, the rescuer is the hacker. Start by blocking pop-up ads, setting up a VPN or cookie-free browser, and helping to keep your senior’s computer free of malware with a good, basic firewall and antivirus protection.
- Strong passwords on computers are like putting a lock on the back door. Help your senior develop a technique for creating and storing passwords – particularly if he or she does online banking or investment account management – and keep the list of passwords safe from any visitors. Reusing passwords is common (more than 30 percent of people do it), and that’s why cyber thieves know how to crack accounts. Get an online password manager for an annual subscription for peace of mind.
- Check with the local Council on Aging or town Senior Activity Center for computer classes. Even community colleges offer classes on how to use products like Kindle, iPad, iPhone, Nook, and other tablet or connected devices (maybe even the Apple Watch that has medical monitoring features). In these forums, seniors will be encouraged to speak up because there’s no such thing as a dumb question. Instructors will know the basic information that users of a certain vintage need to start with, and classes are tailored accordingly.
- If your elder friend or relative allows you, you may become a signatory on his or her bank account. If he or she has been making impulsive purchases online or has responded to hackers who claim to hold his hard drive hostage, you may seek to do whatever is possible to limit the use of credit or debit cards online. Many banks allow someone with power of attorney or co-account status to be alerted when a purchase is made. Sometimes companies (or the bank itself) will walk back fraudulent charges if caught in time.
- Limit exposure to phishing and other email scams. Watch for key phrases when asked to help with an email account. If you see that a senior has many “subscription confirmation” and “thanks for your donation” emails, it could be time for a discussion of online scams and spending. It may help to explain to your friend or relative that they should be suspicious of a bank asking for their PIN or anyone wanting to “confirm details” such as the birth date and social security number by email or phone. Also, explain that cookies track their online activities, including searches for medical information, which can lead to advertising that’s targeted exceptionally well. If you’re able to help with the email account, setting up a strong spam detector can help eliminate many of those nuisances (and suspect) requests for money or pseudo-cures for age-related issues.
- Just when you thought old Uncle Ralph or Aunt Jane was out to pasture, he or she may surprise you by getting curious about online dating. This is another important opportunity for discussion about internet safety because there are many “Lonely Heart” romance scams just waiting for a retiree with a big heart and a bigger bank account. These individuals prey upon unsophisticated individuals, often older folks, by posing as a love interest with much in common (and perhaps a background from the same small hometown – all fake). After many emails pretending to fall in love, Romeo or Juliet will ask your senior friend or relative for cash, whether for a plane ticket to come to visit or bail money for a child, or a loan. Afraid of being lonely again, people often fall for this ruse and send the cash, later learning that they’ve been ripped off. Because they’re embarrassed and ashamed, this scheme may clean out a senior’s entire retirement account before it’s reported. These scams accounted for 15,000 victims and $230 million lost in 2016 alone, according to the FBI.
- If a senior is exposed to an online scam, it helps to report it to the Federal Trade Commission for investigation.