Those of us over 65 are active users of the Internet. Estimates are that 66% of U.S. seniors use the Internet on a regular basis. Not unlike younger folks, a fair number of us are connected for a good part of the day, either through a computer or our smartphone, or both. We may not adapt to the latest technology as quickly as others. But, once something proves itself to be useful to us, we are not being left behind.
Of course, that means we are just as vulnerable to all the bad stuff that happens online. The latest figures I could find say that a new computer virus or malware program is created every 4 seconds. The absurdity of people finding new ways to hurt others at such a relentless pace is a subject for another post. This time, I'd like to focus on some practical ways we can protect our online selves.
This list is not exhaustive, but a good start. Please leave a comment with any other hints or warnings you have found to be important. One caution: I will not post any links to web site addresses. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some spammer would add a link to a post about viruses that turns out to be infected!
1). Buy legitimate software from a recognized dealer or online merchant. This will be more expensive but is a basic safety step to take. While Ebay, for example, is a tremendous place for a lot of things, I would not buy software, new or used, from any merchant listed there. Garage sales? Same rule.
2) Keep all software updated. Windows-based software is vulnerable to constant attacks. Updates or software patches to correct vulnerabilities are issued constantly. Apple is less vulnerable, but not immune. Keep everything up-to-date.
3). Never click a link in an email unless you are very sure it is safe. Friends can unknowingly pass along computer viruses. Social media links are notoriously risky. A link that takes you from one web site to another may not be what it seems. Look carefully at the computer address you are being redirected to. If it doesn't look legitimate don't click it.
4). Use anti-virus, anti-malware software on all your connected devices, including smartphones. Keep them updated. Scan all your files on a regular basis. There are several good free programs that will protect you from most threats. For $40-$70 you can get more protection and more piece of mind. Your computer also comes with something called a Firewall. Be sure it is turned on and functioning.
5. Use pop-up ad blockers. Chrome, Edge and Firefox have add-ons that block a lot of the ads that appear on your screen. If they are not there you won't be tempted to click something that might be dangerous.
6. Use strong passwords. It is amazing how many of us still use passwords like, "12345" or "password." Even obvious choices like your birthdate or old phone number are simple for a bad actor to crack. A combination of upper and lower case letters, interspaced with random numbers and punctuation marks is best.
7. Back up important computer files regularly. It is best to use an external hard drive or cloud-based storage system. If you only back up files directly to your computer and it becomes badly infected, your stored files will do you little good.
8. Never, ever, take an online poll or answer questions about yourself on a social media post or smartphone app, like "answer these 10 questions to find out where you should live." You are giving away private information that could lead to a malware attack. At the very least, you are helping advertisers target you with a constant barrage of ads. One exception: I will occasionally add a poll to this blog. That one is safe!
9. Don't leave your computer connected to the Internet when you are not using it. That allows for the potential of someone entering your computer through your router and leaving something nasty. When you are finished using it, delete all your browsing history and shut it down---not just let it go into sleep mode, but turn it off.
10). Use the alert service offered by your banks and credit card companies. If your balance falls or an unusual charge is made with a credit or debit card, you will be instantly notified. That could be your first sign of some type of computer virus that is allowing others to steal your financial information.
11. If you do suffer a ransomware attack, do not pay. There will be no end to the demands and no guarantee the person will actually remove the damaging software. Immediately try the Control-Alt-Delete action to go to the Task Manager. Try to shut down the offending software. If that doesn't work, unplug your computer from the wall. There are some things to try if you are computer savvy, but they are beyond the scope of this post.
Once you have calmed down, take the computer to a repair service, like the Geek Squad or Data Doctors. They may be able to wipe the offending ransomware from your system.
We live in a strange world where very smart people spend their lives trying to make our lives unpleasant or dangerous. The best we can do is take precautions that will make the job of the bad people tougher.