A Blog For and About Today's Seniors

by Sandra K. Sprague

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Seniors and Internet Safety

It is said that since the introduction of the Gutenburg Press, the first uses for every new technology have been for the purposes of religion and sex. While that may be true, fraudulent activities certainly cannot rank far behind the first two!

As early as 1922, not long after regularly-scheduled U.S. Postal Service airmail delivery began, the first chain letter found its way into the popular culture. Although most of these early chain letters were entitled "Prosperity Club" or "Good Luck", they were almost universally known as "Send-A-Dime" letters. A mail recipient would receive a post card bearing six names and addresses with instructions to make five copies, scratch the top name off, add theirs to the bottom and mail a dime to the top (scratched off) name, then wait for your name to work its way to the top of the "chain". The promised pay-off was $1562.50 if no one broke the chain! (Dire fates were promised for those who did break the chain!)

"Send-A-Dime" crazes popped up every few years; on April 19th, 1935 the Denver Post Office noticed they were being swamped by "Send-A-Dime" postcards. In spite of a publicly-announced threat of prosecution, the craze continued - and spread! On April 28th, 1935 the Denver Post Office processed 165,000 chain letters; ten days later, on May 8th, the St. Louis daily mail average skyrocketed from 450,000 letters to 800,000 - the increase attributable to a surge in "Send-A-Dime" postcards!

Internet Scams and Fraud: Seniors Are A Big Target!

The fraudulent scams of today are not too different from scams of the past and play out all-too-often on the Internet with far stronger viral behavior than the old "Send-A-Dime" chain letter scams. The ubiquitous e-mail about the Nigerian prince requesting your help to siphon millions away from his country is regular sitcom and late-night television joke fodder. Other scams and fraudulent Internet activities are more subtle and less publicized.

Unfortunately, seniors are one of the primary targets of these cyber-scammers.

Seniors Are On The Internet in Increasing Numbers

According to the respected Pew Research Center's "Internet and American Life Project", the largest percentage increase in Internet use since 2005 has been in the 70-75 age bracket! Nearly 60% of American adults maintain a profile on a social networking site; almost a third of American adults post at least once a week on Facebook or Twitter.

Many seniors claim they find it easier to keep up with friends, children and grandchildren by accessing MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Many retirement communities and assisted living facilities offer sophisticated computer rooms for their residents; the Buckingham Senior Retirement Community in Houston, Texas started holding bi-weekly Facebook classes in their computer room - there is now a waiting list! "The reason (for the popularity of the class) can be summed up with one word," says executive director Julie Fenske, "grandchildren!".

While an increased familiarity with and use of the Internet is great for seniors keeping more in touch with family and the outside world at large, there is a possible downside: an increased Internet presence means more American seniors are potentially at risk of being victimized by an Internet fraud or scam!

Why Seniors are Targets of Internet Scams and Frauds

According to the FBI, the elderly are prime targets of fradulent scam-artists for several reasons:

  • Elder Americans are more likely to have larger-than-average savings, a high percentage of home equity and better-than-average credit ratings.

  • Americans who grew up during the 1930's and 1940's generally were raised to be polite and trusting; con artists will exploit this trait, knowing a senior will have more difficulty saying "No!" to a clever "pitch" or "scam".

  • Seniors are less likely to report being victims of a fraud; sometimes they may not realize they've been victimized for a lengthy period of time; often they are reluctant to report being defrauded to the authorities out of fear that their family members may find out and draw the conclusion they can no longer remain independent caretakers of their own finances.

  • If seniors do report being victims of a scam, they often make poor witnesses, with a weaker memory for important details.

  • In many instances, popular scams involve sales of dubious products with claims of abilities to improve cognitive functions, boost general physical health or that they contain anti-cancer ingredients, etc. These "snake oil" products dovetail directly into the primary concerns of many elder Americans.

The following are a few specific areas where seniors are at-risk from their online activities along with some simple ways to protect against potential dangers:

Social Networking and Identity Theft: Don't Talk to Strangers!

From the comfort of their own easy chairs, seniors can log onto their Facebook accounts and instantly be surrounded by the warmth of family and friends, their photos and affectionate messages scattered all over the computer monitor. This virtual family gathering can lull the most wary of us into a false sense of security; there is a tendency to let your guard down when you're amongst loved ones, even if it is on a social networking site.

Scam artists, identity thieves, hackers, spammers, virus-writers and other nefarious types know this and are watching! If you want to participate in the social networking world, exercise caution and follow a few easy and sensible safeguards:

  • Keep Personal Things Personal: Symantec, the computer security software giant, released results from their Norton Online Living Report 2009 which indicated at least one-third of social networkers post at least three pieces of personal data which could lead to identity theft. Full names, birth dates, addresses, childrens' names, pets' names, phone numbers, mothers' maiden names are just a few of the dozens of personal data points which could enable an identity thief to patch together an identity profile of you. Your friends and family already know a lot of personal details about you; don't make it easy for an identity thief by posting a lot of superfluous information.

  • Don't Talk to Strangers: If you've ever warned your children or grandchildren not to talk to strangers, take you own advice when social networking. Don't accept a friendship request from someone you don't know, even if the request came from within a circle of friends of your brother, son or granddaughter. A criminal could have gained access to that circle in just as anonymous a way with the permission of someone not as cautious as they should have been.

  • Freeze Thieves Out: Go online to consumerunion.org and find their credit freeze information. Follow the instructions applicable to your state to freeze your credit file to prevent an identity thief from opening new accounts against it. (You can still open new accounts whenever you'd like by temporarily lifting the freeze with a PIN number you establish when freezing your credit file.)

  • DIY - Build Your Own Contact List: When opening a new social networking website account, you are often asked to let their system scan your e-mail contact list(s) in order to quickly build your contact list on their site. Their system will scan your contact list(s) and automatically e-mail "friend" invitations to each and every e-mail address on your list(s). This is a very effective way for sites like Facebook to grow their subscriber base, but it is also a good way to unknowingly allow unwanted people into your "inner-circle". Build your own contact list with trusted family members and friends.

  • Fire Up a Firewall: It is possible for social networking users to unintentionally pass computer viruses to other users; some viruses can steal your log-in information to e-mail accounts, banking accounts and social networking sites and send this data to hackers! Protect yourself and your social networking contacts by installing a firewall in your computer.

Social networking sites can be fun, emotionally-reassuring platforms for interaction with family and friends. It is great if you enjoy and benefit from social networking, just remember to play it safe and DON'T be robbed of the enjoyment!

Symantec and Symantec logos are the registered trademarks of Symantec Corporation. All other names and logos are the registered trademarks of their owners.