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Privacy please: How to keep your information safe online

Technology is intertwined with seemingly every facet of life, and in many ways has brought about an incredible amount of positive progress. Video calling with relatives miles away is as easy as picking up a smartphone, while patients can even see their doctors over an online connection with the rise of telehealth and electronic health records.

And the internet is hardly an exclusive arena for younger generations. According to Pew Research Center, smartphone use among Americans ages 65 and older quadrupled from 2011 to 2016. The rapid rate of adoption among Americans in retirement or nearing it can be seen in other areas: While just 1 percent of seniors used a tablet in 2010, 32 percent used one in 2016. Similarly, 2 percent of seniors were on social media in 2008, a share that climbed to 34 percent.

Seniors are a digitally active bunch now — with computer labs in a number of retirement communities, along with the wealth of personal devices residents often own — but with all the good of technology also comes the bad. Namely, identity theft and other scams perpetrated online have become a particular concern for seniors as their use of email, social media and the internet expands. Yet, there are many ways for you to stay safe online.

Create strong passwords

Among the most important and basic steps you can take in securing your online activity and accounts is by creating strong passwords. You should always choose something that's specific to you, that only you would know and remember. However, be sure your passwords are not personally identifiable, by including subjects like family names, birthdays or other sensitive information. Though such choices might seem like good options, it could prove damaging if you were ever compromised and your passwords leaked. Some general rules of thumb to go by when creating a robust password include:

  • Use a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters.
  • Include both numbers and/or symbols.
  • Ensure your password is at least 10 characters long.

This may seem like a lot of criteria to satisfy, but it's necessary to have a strong password. You'll also want to preserve those passwords in some offline way so you have ready access if one is ever forgotten, or if you can't remember which password goes with which account. One way is to write them down in a notebook you keep stored in a safe location, another is to give your passwords to a trusted family member who you can rely on as a backup. Just don't use sticky notes on the side of your computer, as this will make it easy for anyone to hack an account.

Be wary of scams

The advent of email and the internet has made staying in touch with family and friends easier than ever. At the same time, it's made it just as easy for cybercriminals and online fraudsters to prey on you. Spam filters won't catch every malicious email, and some phishing scams can mock up an incredibly convincing message in your inbox.

As a general tip, don't open an email from anybody you don't know. You should even take it one step further and exercise caution when getting communications from known parties, like a business or subscriber list you're familiar with. If that email has an attachment that asks you to download a file or requests personal information, you need to be immediately suspicious. If concerned, call a phone number you know to be real (taken from a company website, for instance, and not the email you received) to raise a red flag and clarify the issue.

Also be careful which sites you visit, specifically check for the "s" in the "https://" that precedes each URL in the address bar of your web browser; it stands for "secure" and should be featured on each site you frequent.

Ask for help

Technology can be confusing for everyone, and when there's personal information and your safety at stake, it's not enough to just guess and hope something works. If you're having trouble setting up an account, understanding how to use security questions or safely surf the web from a new device, ask family or friends, or staff at your retirement community.

According to Pew Research Center, while 26 percent of adults 65 and older were "very" confident when using an electronic device, 23 percent were "only a little" confident. If you need to, ask a relative, friend or knowledgeable neighbor you trust over to help you set up Wi-Fi or a personal device. You can even call the Geek Squad or another reputable IT service provider to troubleshoot an issue.

There are a number of reasons to love the internet, but you still need to maintain secure browsing and technology use habits to enjoy the fruits of what the digital revolution can offer. Never leave the safety of your personal identity to chance, and be sure to get help when you need it. Staying safe online is the key to making the best and most positive use of the internet.

Have more questions about seniors and aging? We're here to help. Call us to talk through your questions, and get answers.