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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

Don't be gullible

As you're likely aware by now, "phishing" is a malicious attempt to steal your identity online.

They begin innocently enough as an e-mail in your inbox from what appears to be a legitimate source, such as your bank or favorite online shopping site, but when you click an embedded link you're taken to a "spoof" site, which also looks authentic. You'll then be prompted to give out your credit card number or other financial or personal information.

How can you tell if it's a phishing scam or not? "Phishing attempts always ask you to take action on something, so be suspicious of that," Burgess says. "Remember, there are no such things as free lunches. If you didn’t buy the lottery ticket, you didn’t win the lottery. And if you didn't know you had an uncle [who] is in a foreign country, you probably don't have one."

Banks and shopping sites won't ask you to confirm your credit card or other information in an e-mail.

Create a good password

"Criminals use two main strategies to steal information: They install malware on a computer by exploiting unintended software vulnerabilities, or by breaking into accounts guarded by weak passwords," Sanchez says.

A recent study found most people use their pet's name, phone number, "12345" or simply "password" as their password.

"Use strong passwords that are at least eight characters and include upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols," Sanchez says. "Don’t share your passwords and don’t use the same one on all sites."

Changing your password a couple of times a year would be a good safety measure, too.

If you have a wireless network at home, be sure to protect it with a password; therefore, your neighbors can't access your Internet connection for free, or worse: try to access your computer files.

When dealing with wireless networks, Burgess says to resist Web activities such as online banking when in a public "hotspot," such as your local café, in case someone is intercepting your information.

Shopping suggestions

Stick with businesses you trust — such as websites for brick-and-mortar stores or reputable online-only retailers such as Amazon and iTunes — when you buy online. If you're shopping on eBay, check the seller's reputation score before you buy.

Never send cash or a check. Use only a credit card or a reliable online payment solution, such as PayPal or AlertPay. Check with your credit card company about its online fraud protection policies.

Make sure the website uses encryption before you give out credit card information. You will see an "s" after "http" in the web address ("https"), a tiny closed padlock in the address bar (or in the lower-right corner of the browser window) or with the newest versions of Internet Explorer, the address bar will turn green for trustworthy sites.

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