Senior citizens should take extra care online
by Larry Magid
As I’ve said in previous columns, I’ve been working on internet safety since I wrote Child Safety on the Information Highway for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1994 and, for the past decade, I’ve been helping to run ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit organization that has – until now – focused nearly exclusively on keeping kids safe online.
But kids, parents and teachers aren’t the only ones who need safety advice. Anyone – including folks at the opposite end of the age spectrum – can encounter risks when going online or using mobile technology. And, while I’m by no means suggesting that all or even most senior citizens are any more vulnerable than any other adults, there are cases where folks do become more vulnerable as they age.
For example, there are scam artists who prey on older folks, hoping that they may be more trusting or less savvy. And while not all people lose their mental acuity as they age, criminals are well-aware that some older adults can be more vulnerable. And that’s why ConnectSafely just published The Senior’s Guide to Online Safety, available for free download .
A 2014 Pew Research study found that about 60 percent of Americans over 65 were online and that number is likely higher now. Seniors use the internet and smartphones just like younger people, to pay bills, make travel arrangements, get health information, keep in touch with friends and loved ones, engage in civic or political activism and, of course, socialize. There are even plenty of seniors engaged in online dating, sometimes after a long marriage. Seniors are very likely to go online to get medical information or interact with government agencies, such as Medicare or Social Security.
Just because someone is getting on in years doesn’t mean they’re not tech savvy. When I was approached by a PR person pitching dumbed down cell phones and computers for seniors, I reminded her that most of the pioneers of the personal computer and cell phone industries are now seniors. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is 66. Bill Gates turns 61 this year and Larry Ellison is 72. Our next president will be either 72 or 74 by the end of her or his first term, and we all know that Hillary Clinton is a heavy email user and that Donald Trump loves to Tweet.
Still, regardless of age, there are certain precautions we should all take when online, including being aware that whatever we post or even send by email or text could reach an audience other than who it’s intended for, whether because of a mistake, a person forwarding it, a hack attack or a court-ordered probe.
We all need to be careful about passwords and come up with ones that are easy to remember but hard for others to guess. The guide suggests using a password manager or thinking of a long phrase and using the first letter of each word plus numbers and symbols and changing it around slightly for each site.
Seniors are advised to get to know and use the privacy settings for the sites and apps they use and to know how to block annoying people and report any posts or people who appear to be violating the community standards of the services they use.
We all need to be reminded at times that how we act online is a reflection of ourselves. There is a phenomenon known as “disinhibition” where folks who are generally kind to others in person, forget their manners when they’re online because they feel less accountable. That’s not really true. We’re all accountable for our online behavior.
Seniors are not exempt from cyber bullying and abuse and even those who may be savvy in how they generally conduct themselves can fall for online scams such as an email or Facebook message appearing to come from a friend or relative who was robbed or arrested and in need of emergency cash. If you get such a plea, chances are it’s a scam but if you’re not sure, reach out to the person or someone close to them through another channel to verify the claim.
The guide goes into detail about health sites, which can be great for following up on tests, reordering medication, interacting with your doctor or just getting information about a medical condition. But seniors are advised to stick to reputable sites run by legitimate health organizations and avoid taking medical advice from untrusted sources or diagnosing themselves online. I’ve learned to consult my doctor, not the web, when I experience unknown symptoms, though I do use the web to help me manage conditions once I have a diagnosis.
There are a lot of online financial scams including phishing attacks where you get an email that appears to be from a bank or other company but is really designed to get you to log into a bogus site so they can steal your log-in credentials. And there are those messages and phone calls from “Microsoft” telling you your computer is infected or from the “IRS” saying you owe back taxes. Neither Microsoft nor the IRS use email or phone calls for these types of messages. Email spam remains a major irritant for seniors who need to know about tools that can greatly reduce it.
I love that seniors are going online to share information about hobbies and interests and even their views on issues and candidates, but they need to know they may get pushback, especially around political opinions. Spirited debate can be healthy, but being nasty or even sarcastic can often backfire.
And no matter how old you are, don’t believe everything you see online and don’t spread information unless you know it’s true. You’re never too old to make a good – or bad – online impression.