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Beware Fraudsters When You Go Online

Master computer security basics to protect yourself from online fraud.

During a recent stay in a San Diego rehabilitation facility to recover from surgery, Eva Velasquez’s mother used social media to keep her spirits up. “She was all over Facebook,” says Velasquez.

For some seniors, going online links them to a larger community for support. But there’s a downside as well, says Velasquez, who is also president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit that educates consumers about online fraud. Fake e-mails and other scams abound in the virtual world.

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Take the recent WannaCry malware attack. Hundreds of thousands of users globally clicked on a link or attachment and got a message saying “Oops, your important files are encrypted,” along with a ransom demand. Scams are on the rise, from fake Google Doc attachments to spoof Dropbox e-mails and fraudulent bank notices. The scammers “are hitting us hard,” Velasquez says.

Even so, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. They include mastering computer security basics before spending time online. “You’ve got to do the common-sense things that are in your control,” says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes online safety awareness.

Protect Your Information

First, lock down your log in, Kaiser says. Create strong authentications for all your accounts, which adds an extra layer of security. That way, someone can’t just guess to get into your accounts. Sign up for two-factor authentication, which sends a unique code to your mobile device, and consider adding a fingerprint swipe to access your smartphone. Go to www.lockdownyourlogin.org and click on a site or account you use for specifics on adding authentication.

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Start with your crown jewel accounts. “Your e-mail is really your life,” Kaiser says. If it gets hacked, your other accounts are vulnerable. Move next to your financial accounts, followed by social media accounts. Check your social media settings; you may not realize your Facebook profile defaults to public, for example. Use privacy settings to manage what others will see online.

Keep a clean machine. Don’t skip software updates or let them pile up, says Daniel Whitehouse, a technology law attorney in Orlando, Fla. Install anti-virus software. And don’t forget your smartphone; keep its software updated and delete unused apps. Ask a family member to review your software if you need help. Keep a backup of crucial files: Print out important documents, or store them on an external hard drive.

Never use the same password for all your accounts. If you can’t remember them all, try a password manager, says Justin Cappos, a professor at New York University’s engineering school. Services such as Last Pass and Dashlane create and store passwords for you and organize them under one master password. “You’re much less likely to have problems using one of these than if you write all your passwords down on sticky notes you may or may not lose,” Cappos says. Some services are free; others charge premiums for additional features.

If you get an e-mail that appears to be from your bank or another institution asking for your account information, go directly to its website or call the institution and confirm whether someone really was trying to reach you. You can test your ability to spot scams by taking the quiz at www.protectseniorsonline.com.

Be mindful at the computer. You probably didn’t win a foreign lottery, and your grandchildren don’t need you to wire money, says Rebecca Morgan, a Stetson University College of Law professor. And ignore that friend request from a “friend” already in your social network, one of the latest scams. “Don’t take things at face value or for granted anymore,” Morgan says. Your trusting nature may be admirable, but it won’t keep you safe online.

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