When it comes to online identity theft, senior citizens are particularly susceptible. As a group, they can be extremely trusting and are often unaware of the latest scams that look to separate them from their money.
Senior citizens are frequently not as technologically savvy as younger people, and are therefore more vulnerable to phishing emails from cybercrooks trying to get their personal information, said Jack Tatar, author of the book "Safe 4 Retirement: The Four Keys to a Safe Retirement."
Neal O'Farrell, executive director of the Identity Theft Council in Walnut Creek, California, and a consumer security expert, said seniors should remember one word if they don't want to become victims of identity theft: paranoia.
"This is particularly important for seniors, who might not be as cynical as the rest of us," O'Farrell said. "They tend to want to be a little more trusting and they're probably not at all aware of the web of traps that are out there."
Here are five tips to help protect seniors from online identity theft:
Take care when opening emails and attachments.
If you don't know the person sending you an email message, don't open the message.
"No, the prince of Nairobi does not have five million dollars to give you," Tatar said.
The bad guys try to trick you into installing malicious software, or malware, onto your computer when you click on a link in the body of the email or open an email attachment. The malware could infect the hard drive of your computer, allowing someone to control it remotely, or it could look for your passwords or other personal information and send it to the cybercriminals.
Beware of phishing emails.
Phishing email messages look as if they come from your bank or another reputable company. The messages will ask you to reset your password or log into your account to verify certain information.
Scammers use these email messages to try and con you into revealing personal and financial information, such as your bank account number or your Social Security number. The cyberthieves then use this information to steal your identity and your money.
"People will get these dire emails saying, 'Your PayPal account needs to be adjusted [in the subject line],'" Tatar said. "No, it doesn't."
Banks and financial institutions will not send you an email asking you to reset your password, nor will they ask for any other personal information, he said.
"If you have a question about the email," Tatar said, "call your broker or call your bank before you click on the email."
Keep your passwords safe.
You should never write down your passwords to your online accounts and carry them around with you, according to Tatar.
"You should also get into the habit of changing your passwords, if not monthly, then certainly every two months," he said.
O'Farrell said seniors should be sure not to use easy-to-guess passwords.
"My experience is that they want something that's easy to remember, and they use that same password across multiple sites," he said. "They're so proud of the fact that they can remember their password when everyone else seems to have trouble. But that's because it's an easy password and they only have one."
Seniors have to be persuaded to use complex passwords — even passphrases — and different passwords for different sites.
"It's OK for them to write passwords down and keep them in their homes," O'Farrell said. "There aren't many hackers who are going to break into your home and go looking for your passwords."
Check for the 'https.'
"Never, ever shop or do banking or give any personal information on a website that does not have 'https' up in the address line," Tatar said. "That means it's a secure site."
There should be a small padlock — often a yellow one — that appears somewhere in the address bar, he added.
Don't put too much information in obituaries.
Because anyone can read obituaries online, you have to be sure not to include too much personally identifying information about the deceased, such as a mother's maiden name, an address, personal ancestry, occupation or date of birth. An identity thief can use this information to set up new accounts in the deceased person's name.
"The main thing is, just limit this information when you're writing obituaries for relatives," Tatar said.
The fact is, more and more seniors are going online and they have to be aware of all these potential dangers, he said.