If online, beware: fraudsters proliferate

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Mary Kane

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,” Velasquez said.

For some seniors, going online links them to a larger community for support. But there’s a downside as well, according to 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.

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 said.

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,” said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes online safety awareness.

How to protect yourself

First, lock down your log in, Kaiser said. Create strong authentications for all your accounts, which adds an extra layer of security. That way, someone can’t just guess a password to get into your accounts.

Sign up for two-factor authentication, which sends a unique code to your smartphone or other 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 how to add authentication.

Start with your crown jewel accounts. “Your email is really your life,” according to Kaiser. 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 up with updates. Don’t skip software updates or let them pile up, said 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. And 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, recommended 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 said. Some services are free; others charge premiums for additional features.

Be mindful at the computer. You probably didn’t win a foreign lottery (especially one you didn’t enter!), and your grandchildren don’t need you to wire them money, said 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 said. Your trusting nature may be admirable, but it won’t keep you safe online.

If you get an email 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. 

© 2017 The Kiplinger Washington Editors

All contents copyright 2017 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.