You can surf the Internet in safety if you take the right precautions
By Olev Edur
Illustration: Dreamstime/Vladislav Kochelaevskiy.
Since the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s, its use has boomed. A series of Statistics Canada studies found that by 2012, practically everyone in the country between 18 and 55 had been online within the previous year. And while retirees were initially slower to adopt the new technology, they’ve been catching on fast.
Those same studies showed that the percentage of Canadians aged 65-plus who used the Web grew almost eightfold (to 48 per cent) between 2000 and 2012; although more recent data aren’t available, it seems likely that if almost one in two Canadian retirees was online three years ago, a sizable majority would be connected by now.
“It’s likely just a matter of time until seniors are no longer lagging other age groups in Internet usage,” Statistics Canada spokesperson Mark Uhrbach was quoted in the Toronto Star as saying when the stats were released.
Small wonder: the Internet is ideally suited for retirees, especially those with mobility challenges. In addition to freely communicating by e-mail with loved ones and friends around the world (the most common online pastime for retirees), you can shop, tend to finances, make travel arrangements, look for entertainment, enjoy music and movies, play games, take university courses, and find answers to just about any question, all from the comfort of your home (or if you have mobile/Wi-Fi access, from wherever you are).
“It’s wonderful. We use the Internet for everything now,” says David Strawbridge, recently retired to Richmond Hill, ON, with his partner, Linda. “We do all our banking on the Internet. We’ve been managing our investments online for years, and right now we’re shopping for real estate. You’ve got a whole world of information at your fingertips.
“One of the things I like best about the Internet is that you can arrange a whole trip so easily,” Strawbridge says. “Cars, hotels, air, everything. All the information you need is right there, and you can get some of the best deals on travel websites like tripadvisor.com and booking.com. I took a road trip to my childhood home in Winnipeg last summer, with stops all along the way, and it took me less than half an hour to find hotels and book the rooms—and they were all at a discount. It’s just great.”
You can buy virtually anything you want from anywhere in the world and have it delivered to your doorstep relatively quickly and cheaply—or even for free (albeit possibly subject to minimum order requirements and/or government duties). Another Statistics Canada study found that by 2013, half the businesses in Canada (including 90 per cent of large enterprises) had websites with Internet sales (retail, manufacturing, and wholesale) totalling $136 billion. And while those numbers are impressive, Canada actually lags behind many other countries in commercial Web usage.
The data website statista.com claims that global e-commerce statistics “confirm the explosive pace at which this industry has developed as worldwide B2C e-commerce sales [B2C, or business-to-customer, sales are the equivalent of retail-only] amounted to more than US$1.2 trillion in 2013.” The site also reveals that current statistics indicate 40 per cent of Internet users bought goods online: “This amounts to more than one billion online buyers and is projected to continuously grow.”
But What About Security?
Where big money goes, trouble usually follows. Given numerous recent alarms about hackers, viruses, worms, “phishing” expeditions, and the costly havoc they can wreak upon individual users and companies alike, it’s not surprising that Internet safety is a concern, especially for anyone who is going to be putting sensitive financial data such as bank account and credit card numbers and passwords into the system.
As if to heighten such fears, there have been several big hacker-induced losses of personal and financial data recently in Canada and the United States; moreover, Web-security experts admit cyberattacks have become a never-ending problem. According to a McMaster University study quoted on Public Safety Canada’s website, “In a recent one-year period, 86 per cent of large Canadian organizations had suffered a cyberattack.”
Thankfully for most of us, these big threats are generally directed at big organizations, not individual users, and your own Web use isn’t affected by these problems. Stated another way, if you were a client of one of those companies, it would make no difference whether your personal and financial info was entered online or in-store.
“What they’re talking about at the federal level has more to do with country-to-country espionage,” says Peter Ferguson, a retired technology professor who now teaches computer courses to retirees through the public library system in Quinte West, ON. “For example, there’s a huge perceived threat from China these days, but that’s all beyond us as individual users. These things will happen, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s the government’s responsibility.”
And while there are certainly many threats to be encountered even by individual users online, they’re not much different from those encountered in the real world and generally can be avoided by exercising some care and common sense. After all, cyberthreats have been around since the Internet began—and it’s still growing.
“If you’re dealing with reputable companies such as Sears and the airlines, you can be pretty sure they’re secure,” Ferguson says. “Online shopping sites such as eBay and PayPal are pretty secure [but you should always keep up with the latest cybernews about breaches], and they provide guarantees on all their transactions, so if there’s ever a problem, it’s not likely to become a big issue.”
Similarly, the big financial institutions guarantee against any fraudulent online transactions affecting your accounts, so you can bank and invest without fear of loss. It’s when you start going to unrecognized sites and doing business that you must exercise more discretion.
“If you’re on a site you’ve never been to before, make sure it’s a secure site,” Ferguson says. “The ‘http’ in the website address should be ‘https’—the s standing for ‘secure.’ Many browsers also display a padlock symbol to indicate you’re on a secure site.”
“I don’t really worry about security,” Strawbridge says. “We’ve been doing all our banking transactions and managing our investments online for years and haven’t had any problems. We trust the banks. We believe they’re on top of the security issue.”
Protecting Yourself Online
Roy Hart, chief information officer at Seneca College in Toronto, suggests that the virtual world is just like the real world, in that much depends on exactly what you are doing: “Asking how dangerous the Internet is is like asking how dangerous Detroit is,” he says. “There are areas you go to and areas you don’t go to.
“If you go to sites that you recognize, such as Facebook and Yahoo, and you’re not downloading any software, then the Internet is pretty safe,” Hart adds. “But if you go to gambling sites and the like, you’re exposing yourself to the risks that go along with that part of society. It’s the same as the real world: people can interact directly with you. You always have to be vigilant.”
The first line of defence for any Internet user is a good antivirus program.
“Antivirus software is important, absolutely, because there are some dangerous websites out there,” Ferguson says. “There are lots of programs available and some of them are free. Also, some browsers, such as Google Chrome, now have their own protection: if you go to a dangerous site, you’ll get a red screen warning you to use the ‘back’ button and get away from there. But if you’re getting software, make sure it’s been recommended by an authoritative source, because there are a lot of so-called antiviruses that are in fact viruses.”
Antivirus protection is essential for Web surfers, Hart says.
“If you don’t have antivirus software and you’re connected to the Internet, you’re going to get infected pretty quickly,” he cautions. “In fact, we’ve found in our lab that, if a computer’s not protected, it gets infected within minutes every single time. It’s shocking, but it’s true.”
“If you go to Google and enter ‘free antivirus software,’ you’ll find there are all kinds of tools out there,” says Joseph Lee, security compliance officer at Seneca. “Microsoft also has a great security website [microsoft.com/security].”
For even greater security, you can easily create a “firewall” within your own computer to prevent any other computer from getting at your system. This may, however, interfere with any dealings you may want to have with legitimate sites and may need to be disabled or modified at those times. You need to ensure that all your software is updated regularly to incorporate the latest security measures, too; this can now be done automatically in most cases.
If you’re accessing the Internet from somewhere other than your own home, then you need to be a bit more careful.
“Context is important,” Hart says. “If you’re at a library using the library’s computer, or you’re using Wi-Fi at a coffee shop, you should always be sure to erase your tracks when you’re finished. People often use Wi-Fi when they’re travelling, but whenever you use something that’s not yours, you need to take extra precautions.”
Special Concerns About E-mail
By far the single most common Internet application is e-mail, which can present its own problems.
For starters, through e-mail is how most viruses and other invasive programs get into your computer: as attachments you shouldn’t have opened or links you shouldn’t have clicked on.
“You can read any e-mails you receive without danger,” Ferguson says. “It’s just a text message, and it’s impossible to put a virus into a text message. Just don’t click on anything—cyberthieves will try all kinds of methods to get you to click on a link to a particular website or to open an attachment, and that’s where it gets dangerous. If it’s from someone you don’t know or someone who seems strange, just delete it. That’s a big key to staying safe.
“There are a few current viruses that, when they get into your computer, will scan your mailing list and send e-mails to everyone on it,” Ferguson says. “You probably have a pretty good idea of who is going to be sending you e-mails, and after a while, you get to recognize their style of writing, so if you get something from them that seems unusual or that you don’t understand, call and ask if they sent it before clicking on anything.”
Lee makes the same recommendation: “I tell my parents and in-laws that, whenever they see an unexpected e-mail, they should always stop before clicking on anything. Lots of people prey on unsuspecting targets online, so stop for a moment and call the source of the e-mail to verify that he or she did send it. So far, this has worked well for them.”
As in most areas of the Internet (other than those security-conscious financial websites), it’s safest to assume that anything you put in an e-mail could become public.
“In terms of daily e-mail use, you should always remember not to include confidential information such as passwords to your banking website,” Hart says. “Nevertheless, e-mail is probably safer than letter mail.”
Identity theft has reached epidemic proportions globally, and while it isn’t limited to the Internet—it can result from losing your wallet or even from throwing financial or personal documents in the trash—the Web has certainly provided an accessible and fertile alternative approach.
But, as Ferguson points out, as long as you take the same precautions as in the real world, the virtual world need not be troublesome.
“These things happen, but seniors have an advantage over teens,” Ferguson says. “They have life experience and the common sense that brings. Seniors know that if somebody claims to have a briefcase with $20 million in it and promises to give you $1 million just for watching it, something’s not right. Seniors are experienced enough to know that nothing is for free. It’s the same with phone scams that request bank account numbers or other personal information. Banks and other legitimate organizations aren’t going to contact you to ask for that kind of information—because they already have it.”
As for social media such as Facebook and Twitter, again, it’s pretty much common sense, with the added caution that once you post information, it becomes public knowledge. “It’s not like old-style photographs that you can keep private—once you post something online, you no longer have control over it,” Hart says. “You have to be careful about how much personal information you post; make sure you know who can access your information by adjusting the privacy settings.
“You hear about people posting their address, and next they say they’re going away on holiday, and then their house gets broken into,” Hart says. “I use social media all the time, but I don’t go around taking pictures of my jewellery and putting them on Facebook.”
As elsewhere on the Internet, effective passwords for your social-media accounts are important. Public Safety Canada’s website advises that “a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters should be used for better protection” and recommends changing passwords every few months.
While passwords and other precautions are important, Ferguson warns, things can still leak out sometimes.
“Wherever you register, you should take the time to read the contract terms and find out exactly what you’re agreeing to,” he says. “For example, people have sometimes seen their pictures used in commercial photos, because by agreeing to a website’s terms and conditions, they had given permission to use their pictures. It’s not that hard to read the terms; the first few will take a bit of time, but you start to see a pattern, and then you can skim through them relatively quickly.”
Once you get the hang of the Internet, it’s quite easy. All you need are some basic safeguards and some common sense, and you’ll soon be surfing all over the place.