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Senior Correspondent

Be Careful: It’s a Scary World Online

Satisfying Retirement

The Internet is probably an important part of your life. It is quite possible you pay some of your bills online. 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 online.

Believe it or not, close to 50 percent of all those over the age of 50 are involved in some form of social media, with Facebook being the clear leader. Over 70 percent of adults between 50 and 64 and over 40 percent 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 cyberbullying. 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 websites 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 a form of fraud 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 that 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 online experience more satisfactory. 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 and 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 four months (with one of three 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 online scam? Is there any other safety hint you'd like to pass on? Now is the time.

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