October 9, 2011

Be Careful: It's a Scary World On-Line

The Internet is probably an important part of your life. It is quite possible you pay some of your bills on-line. You certainly visit blogs or you wouldn't be reading this. You may stream movies and TV shows over your laptop. In all likelihood you look at pictures of your children or grandkids on line.

Believe it or not, close to 50% of all those over the age of 50 are involved in some form of social media, with Facebook being the clear leader. Over 70% of adults between 50-64 and over 40% of 65+ folks use the Internet on a regular basis. The average Internet user spends a whopping average of 37 hours a month logged on.

So, all that use means we all feel comfortable with the Internet. Not by a long shot.The Internet may have become a part of our daily life, but many of us are worried about the dangers that seemingly lurk everywhere. The top worries are actually quite similar across most ages, Only children show a different set of concerns, mainly centered on those who prey on kids, or cyber bullying. But for the rest of us, see how many of these worries make your list. Don't completely despair. I'll give you some basic steps to help protect yourself.

Fraud. This can cover lots of territory. You order something that never comes and you can't contact the seller because they have disappeared. Maybe you sign up for what you think is a legitimate credit card offer only to discover the whole thing is a scam to steal your important information. Lotteries are a serious problem for some seniors. They look so good and sound so easy, until you hit the send button. Even legitimate web sites can involve  a form of fraud: you sign up for something that you need or want but find out there are other charges for other services you never agreed to.

Stealing your Identity. Of course, this is form of fraud but one that can cause immense problems. It can take years and cost of thousands of dollars to clear up the mess left when some bad guy pretends to be you long enough to wreck your credit and  leave you with thousands of dollars of unpaid bills. The problem with this type of Internet crime is you often have no idea it has occurred. It might take days, or weeks, or even months for the theft to come to your attention. You go to swipe a credit card at the food store and it is denied. You check and get the bad news. Everyday we seem to read about an  endless parade of companies that announce millions of personal information files have been lost or stolen. Does that include you?

Draining a checking or investment account. Often linked to your identity theft, few things can be more terrifying than looking at your stock broker or bank statement and finding the money gone. A life's worth of savings can be stripped from you in seconds. While many safeguards are in place, they are not foolproof.

Personal Information collected. Usually the purposes are legitimate: to properly identify you as the person you claim to be or to make your on-line experience more satisfactory. But, in other cases, you wonder why they need this information. Many larger merchants will ask you for your e-mail address when you buy something at the store in the mall. Giving someone the last four digits of your social security number sounds pretty safe. But, by knowing where and when you were born (available on the Internet with very little effort) the person suddenly knows the first three numbers, too. Randomly generating the other two is something any decent computer can do in a few seconds. The government collects information about you continuously. Google knows more about your Internet and shopping habits than your spouse. That grocery store loyalty card gets you hamburger for 40 cents less a pound but gives the store detailed information about what you buy.

So, what can you do? No steps will protect you from everything. Too many people are spending all their time inventing new schemes. But, there are some  things you should do to help swing the odds a bit more in your favor.

Basic Steps to protect yourself from the big bad Internet:

  • Change your passwords often and don't use the same one for all accounts.
  • Make the passwords unusual: a combination of letters, numbers & symbols
  • Don't keep a copy of your passwords on your computer.
  • If your computer suddenly starts running slowly it could be infected. Immediately run a scan.
  • If on a social network, set the privacy settings to protect important information about you
  • Don't put anything on the social network that you don't want the world to see.
  • If using Internet Explorer upgrade to at least IE 8. Set security to at least medium
  • Use Private browsing in IE to prevent web sites from tracking you.
  • Delete browsing history, temporary files, and cookies on a regular basis.
  • Examine all bills closely for unexpected charges.
  • Run a free credit check every 4 months (with one of 3 agencies) to catch problems.
  • Don't open e-mails from someone you don't know.
  • Never respond to an e-mail that says it is from your bank or credit card company and needs to verify some of your account information. They don't send e-mails like that, ever. Neither does the IRS.
  • Make sure your computer's anti-virus software is running and up to date.
  • Sign off from the Internet when you are done. Don't leave the computer connected, regardless of how safe the site is.
  • If you are using a wireless connection, secure it. People driving or walking by your house can use your WiFi connection. Same rule for coffee shops. Those wireless networks are not secure. Never do anything that involves important data or private information over a public WiFi network.

The Internet is a tremendous tool for learning, entertainment, staying in touch, and managing your affairs. But, it is largely unregulated and open to bad things done by bad people. Be alert, follow the basic steps above, use common sense, and you should be just fine. 

Do you have any experiences to share? Have you been a victim of some on-line scam? Is there any other safety hint you'd like to pass on? Now is the time.

A safe place to go on-line is the purchase of my new e-book, Building a Satisfying Retirement. I'd appreciate your support. Click here for more information on how to download the book.

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  1. Good advice. My additions are:

    Get a Mac. We don't get viruses and we have an automatic built in firewall so no need to keep paying for anti virus subscriptions.

    Also, use PayPal to buy things rather than using your credit card. That way only Paypal has your info.

    And yes, get Experian or one of the credit monitoring systems. I pay $50 a year. Very worth the money. They send you a report every month.

  2. I de-activated my FaceBook account when they made the last changes. FaceBook started tracking it's users even after they signed off! Don't trust them, nor do I want anyone knowing anymore what I do. I lost a job to FaceBook. Another writer tracked me and beat me to an upcoming writing assignment. Don't need the drama.

    I use a special non-descript email address online. I very rarely buy anything on line. If I do, I clear out my personal info once the transaction is done. I clear out all cookies at least once per week. Yes, you have to re-enter everything, but worth it.

  3. Roberta,

    If I were to start again I would be an Apple person. The security is far superior to a PC. In fact, Microsoft is issuing a massive patch this week with 20 some updates.

    I run the free credit reports 3 times a year (using the different agencies each time). The only problems I have ever caught are minor ones, like having me living at a rental property I owned...things easily fixed. But, keeping your eye on both your credit and your personal info are crucial.

    I use Paypal, but not as much as I could. I've never had a problem, I'm just not in the habit of looking for it.


    I haven't found a thing I like about Facebook. It is amazing that the majority of adults 50+ on-line use Facebook regularly. I don't think most of them understand how dangerous it can be if the privacy settings aren't used properly.

    You are right: Facebook (and increasingly Google) have the ability to track us wherever we are and keep track of whatever we do. Scary and infuriating!

  4. OK, you succeeded at scaring me! It's a really good article though! Thanks for the tips. Glad I'm already on a MAC :)

  5. Sandra,

    Knowledge is often the best defense!

  6. I'm going to have my computer guru friend come over and help me with some of these safeguards! Thanks!

  7. I started out as a Mac guy in the 1980s and was forced to Windows by corporate management about five years later. But I have recently decided to move back to the Mac crowd due to the things cited here.

    If you want to see my whole story look at a post I did last week on it at


  8. RJ,

    Let me know how your switch back goes. I have so many years of files I wonder about conversion and being able to use them if i ever switched to a Mac.

  9. Galen,

    Glad the list makes your computer just a little bit safer!

  10. As you know Bob, I am a big user of the internet. But it is interesting how little I actually use places like facebook and how little I share. My business cards don't even contain my home address. If a stranger writes me an email I never open it.

    It really is kind of sad isn't it. But the truth is, we are just all strangers out here and we need to remember it.

    We use a Mac so we have not had many problems up until now with the compputer. But I am in the process of getting a new debit card...the old number was traveling to Mexico without me. Darn I hate when that happens. Be care, be watchful.

    Okay, now go out there and play people. If you follow the rules it really is a lot of fun.


  11. b,

    The Internet can be both a fabulous friend and your worst nightmare. But, with a normal amount of common sense most of us will be just fine. It is like crossing a busy street...let your attention wander and you could be in trouble.

    You are smart to keep your address off your card and not open e-mails from strangers. I have a different e-mail account that has nothing to do with the blog that is strictly for friends and family.