Whether you pay your bills online, use credit cards when you shop the Web or receive your financial statements via e-mail, you're putting yourself at risk of becoming a victim of Internet fraud. According to the FBI, older Americans are a favorite target of scam artists because they have nest eggs and are less likely to report being swindled. Follow these 12 online safety tips to lessen the likelihood of falling for an electronic scheme.
• Keep antivirus, firewall and spyware protection up-to-date on all computers. Turn on auto-updating to be sure they are. Use the latest versions of browsers to get more layers of protection. Browsers often have built-in features that help detect potentially unsafe websites.
• Avoid unsolicited e-mails. These are a common source of Internet fraud. Whether the person sending the message wants to obtain personal information or wants you to buy a product or service, the come-on normally starts with an e-mail. Don't click on links or respond to e-mails from anyone you don't know, especially when the offer sounds too good to be true.
• Delete messages that ask you to verify account information, such as for a bank, a credit card or PayPal. The message often states that failure to verify the information will result in an alarming consequence, such as account closure. You should not respond to these e-mails and should go to your financial institution directly to make any changes to your account. The e-mails are likely a scheme to steal your account number and password.
• Do online business with companies you know. If a company is unfamiliar, first research that it truly exists. Check online search engines for consumer feedback and complaints.
• Ignore unsolicited offers that promise wealth and riches, especially if they are coming from other countries. For example, several fraud schemes have originated from Nigeria. The infamous Nigerian letter scam predates the Internet but has successfully migrated to the Web.
• Check a website's privacy rules. Look for evidence of encryption, often symbolized by a lock. This means the information you're entering is scrambled.
• Never use the same password online that you use for your bank account or ATM card. Also, change your passwords periodically. Include both letters and numbers to make it harder to guess.
• Don't access personal accounts, pay bills online, bank or shop from public computers. Some of the information you enter into a public PC can be retrieved by the next user. Also, public wireless networks aren't secure for either a public PC or your own laptop.
• Be wary of e-mail messages or pop-up windows that tell you that your computer is unsafe. If you download the software that's offered — harmful software is known as "malware" — you could damage your operating system. At the least, you'll end up buying software you never needed in the first place.
• Check your bank and credit card statements closely to identify transactions that aren't legitimate. Report any suspicious activity to your financial institution immediately.
• Follow the same rules for cell phones or other mobile devices. Fraud and identity theft aren't limited to desktop and laptop computers.
• Warn relatives and friends who use the Internet about online fraud. Don't allow loved ones to be victimized by scam artists.
All the information presented on AARP.org is for educational and resource purposes only. We suggest that you consult with your financial or tax adviser regarding your individual situation. Use of the information contained in this website is at the sole choice and risk of the reader.