4 Basic Tips on How to Stay Safe Online and Avoid Getting Scammed

March 27, 2023

As people of all ages spend more time online, scammers and hackers are becoming more sophisticated. Consumers reported losing almost $9 billion dollars in scams last year, according to data released by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — an increase of more than 30% compared with 2021.

Online shopping was among the top five types of scams, and scams conducted through social media had the highest overall reported losses: a total of $1.2 billion.

Those statistics are only for reported fraud. Many instances go unreported, particularly among older adults, who may be more likely to feel ashamed or embarrassed if they are victimized.

Why (and How) Scammers Target Seniors

Whether trying to steal money or personal information (which can be used to access financial accounts or for identity theft), scammers prey on older adults for several reasons:

  • Seniors tend to be more trusting.
  • They often have accumulated more wealth.
  • They may be less experienced internet users.
  • They may not have a trusted person close by to advise them.
  • They may be less likely to report being scammed.

Most common scams targeting older adults

The FTC data shows how fraud differs by age groups:

  • Among those ages 60-69, online shopping was the top type of fraud reported, primarily through the use of credit cards and mostly on websites or apps.
  • For those ages 70-79, online shopping was also the top reported fraud category, but social media was slightly ahead of websites and apps as the main method of contact between the fraudster and victim.
  • Among seniors age 80 or older, the top type of fraud reported was an imposter saying they represented a business and then asking for money. While these scams were most often conducted over the phone, email was another common method of contact.

Fortunately, there are many ways to protect yourself from being scammed, whether you’re scrolling through your Facebook feed, reading emails or shopping on websites.

Although these tips focus on staying safe online, some are also useful for avoiding scams perpetrated by:

  • Text
  • Phone
  • Mail
  • Someone who shows up at your front door

Tip #1: Create strong passwords and consider using a password manager

Strong passwords are one of the best means of protecting your accounts and personal information when you’re on the internet. These are some guidelines:

  • Generally, the longer your passwords are, the better. Sometimes you can even use phrases (without spaces) as passwords. When possible, your passwords should contain at least eight characters, including capital and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters.
  • Don’t use (only) your birthdate, the numbers in your street address or ZIP code, your pet’s name, or names and birthdates of family members as passwords.
  • Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts. If someone guesses your password, they’ll be able to access all of those accounts.
  • Change your passwords often.

A password manager can make your online life easier

It’s usually not a good idea to keep a written record of your login information and almost impossible to remember it all. A password manager may be a good alternative.

A password manager stores your login information, typically in an encrypted database. You log in to your password manager using a master password that only you know. The password manager then provides your login information when you access your accounts.

Most password managers will also generate passwords when you set up new accounts.

Password managers have some potential downsides, so do some research before making any decisions.

Tip #2: Be wary of special offers and requests from unknown entities

There’s an adage that warns if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. This wisdom may be more relevant than ever in the digital age.

If you’re on social media or browsing the internet and you notice an interesting ad offering an extreme discount (e.g., for prescription drugs) or a free trial offer, be careful. It could be a scam or a way for a hacker to infect your computer or mobile device with a virus. Pop-up windows are especially suspect.

Be equally careful if you receive an email or text message with a seemingly fantastic offer (or a request for a donation).

Here are some dos and don’ts:

  • Don’t click on links in ads or pop-up windows. If you want to check out an offer, do an online search for the name of the company and go directly to the company’s website. Even so, scammers are good at creating websites that seem legitimate — so do use an abundance of caution before making a purchase or providing any information in response to these ads. The same holds true for links in text messages and emails.
  • Don’t download files attached to emails or texts (or click on links in them) unless you are absolutely sure the sender is a legitimate person or place of business. Phishing is a type of fraud in which scammers create messages that appear to be from a well-known company such as Amazon or Walmart. They may ask you to click on a link to verify your account or payment information. If you click to download a file, they may be able to install malware on your device. If you’re unsure, do contact customer service at the company (get the phone number from the company’s website) and ask if there’s a problem with your account.
  • Do check the sender’s email address if you think an email may not be legitimate. Scammers and hackers often vary the name of a company slightly in the email address. Or, the email address may be a long string of letters and numbers. Both are signs of a fake email address. (If you don’t see the email address, try hovering your mouse over the sender’s name.)
  • Don’t click on links or download files if you get an odd text, email or message via social media from someone you know. If the message doesn’t sound like something your acquaintance would normally say, their account may have been hacked. If in doubt, do call and ask if the person actually sent the message.

Tip #3: Exercise caution when providing personal information

Scammers are crafty when it comes to enticing people into providing information. These are some common ways:

Imposter scams

Some scammers send emails or texts that appear to be from banks or government agencies (like the Social Security Administration or the IRS). They may ask you to verify your bank account number or login information. They may also urge you to make a payment in order to avoid a penalty.


Catfishing schemes are a variation of the imposter scam. These scammers use social media to lure their targets by pretending to be a new friend or love interest. They may want your information to gain access to your accounts, or they may be more direct and ask you for money.

The safest way to avoid this type of scam is to accept friend requests on social media only from people you know. If you think you’re being targeted, ask your new acquaintance to do a video chat. You could also ask to meet in person, but be extremely careful if you do. Only agree to meet in a public place, and ask someone you trust to go with you.

Free offers

Another method scammers use is asking you to register for a free trial or subscription. While some of these offers are legitimate, others are not. It may seem harmless to provide your email address, mailing address or phone number, but hackers can use this information to gain access to more information about you, or they can sell it.

Urgent requests

Be particularly wary if someone tries to pressure you into providing personal information or making a donation or payment right away. Always take the time to verify that the person or organization making the request is who they claim to be.

Tip #4: Take extra security precautions

These additional measures can help you be more secure when you’re online. If you’re interested in using them but aren’t sure how, ask a trusted friend or relative for help or look for information online.

Security and privacy settings

Your social media accounts, browsers, email accounts, computers and mobile devices all have security and privacy settings you can adjust for increased protection.

Antivirus software

Many types of antivirus software are available for your computers and mobile devices. An online search will tell you which ones experts recommend for your needs. Some are free; others have a subscription fee.

Two-step authentication

Also called two-step verification or two-factor authentication, this adds another layer of security in case your password is stolen. For example, when you log in to your account, you may have to provide a code sent to you via text or email.

A virtual private network

Basically, a virtual private network (VPN) disguises your online identity, making it harder for anyone to track your online activity or steal your data when your devices are connected to the internet. Some companies bundle antivirus software with a VPN.

A final note: Be sure your wireless network is secure, and always keep your devices’ operating systems updated.

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Featured Image: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock