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Online Security for Older Americans

Learn how you can protect yourself on the Web.

father and daughter sitting with laptop

— Ross Andersen/Corbis

Serve and protect

After you've backed up your important information, the next step is to ensure you've got good security software installed on your computer. Usually, this includes antivirus (to protect from computer viruses and self-replicating "worms"); antimalware (to protect from "spyware" and other programs that monitor your behavior or cause pop-up ads or unwanted toolbars); and a firewall (which shields your computer from intruders).

"Without question, everyone should have these three things, and the good news is many ISPs [Internet service providers] offer them for free," says Burgess.

Alternatively, free programs are available that offer protection (check out the "Most popular” lists at, while those who want more robust security can opt for software suites, such as Symantec's "Norton Internet Security" or McAfee's "Internet Security."

And be sure to keep all software up to date, adds Kim Sanchez, group manager for the Trustworthy Computing Group at Microsoft Corp. "Cybercriminals always look for ways to exploit vulnerabilities in software, so regularly install updates for all your software, antivirus and antispyware programs, operating systems, and word processing and other programs."

If you get a suspicious e-mail from a friend, perhaps with a photo attachment you're encouraged to click on, keep in mind his or her computer could be infected and the message was sent out without his or her knowledge. "If you weren't expecting the photo, you might want to check with the originator to confirm it's from them," says Burgess.

"The appeal of the seemingly limitless information, images and opportunities on the Internet can lead us to forget that this access also comes with risk," Sanchez says. "Cybercriminals work hard to damage or seize control of computers to spread malware or spy on your online activities — all in an attempt to steal sensitive personal information and money."

Don't 'overshare'

Those who reveal too much information about themselves on the Internet, such as popular social networking sites like Facebook, could risk setting themselves up for scammers.

Think twice about how much information you (or your kids and grandkids) are putting out there on the Internet. Posting your name on your Facebook profile page is perfectly reasonable, but you need not list your address, birth date, phone number, work details or any other information that should remain private.

On a related note, remind children to be cautious about what kinds of photos they're posting, too, in case they reveal personal info such as a photo of them in front of their school sign or in a soccer uniform. The unfortunate reality is that predators use social networking sites to look for victims.

"Online safety is our personal responsibility — not the Internet's responsibility — so we need to protect ourselves and our families from the phenomenon of oversharing," Burgess says.

Make sure your social networks are open to friends only. "Grandparents love to see pictures of the grandkids — in the old days, we sent them in hard copy and we knew the recipient was going to be the only one to see them — but today, within seconds, a photo of a grandchild can be seen, copied or printed by everyone, if you don't adjust privacy settings on sites like Facebook, YouTube, and so on," Burgess cautions.

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