A Caregiver’s Guide: Cyber Security and Internet Safety for Seniors

How safe is your senior family member when they’re online? Today’s older generation didn’t grow up with computers and the internet. They may not be aware of internet safety, putting them at risk of scams and identity theft. Even younger adults, who are online regularly, unknowingly fall for these cyber scams. 

The pandemic encouraged more seniors to jump online in recent years. One study found that “digital technology can minimize loneliness, social isolation, and additional health concerns that can be exacerbated due to the lack of social connectivity.”

A Statistics Canada study found that 89.9% of seniors used the internet in 2022, and:

  • 74.7% used email 
  • 50.9% used instant messaging apps
  • 37.8% used online voice or video calling

However, with this “rush” to get online, many seniors who hadn’t previously been active internet users now face increased risk for identity theft and online scams. What was touted as a way to stay in touch with loved ones during the pandemic has become a potential security risk for some seniors. 

Here are a few internet safety tips to make sure your older loved ones (and you) are being safe online. 

Email safety

Email helps seniors instantly send and receive letters from friends and family. However, email scams are common, especially during the holiday season and heavy shopping days (like the Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Boxing Day). 

Phishing is when a scammer pretends to be a reputable company when they email you. They usually ask you to send them private information (like addresses, account numbers, or passwords) via a link in their email message. Today’s phishing scams are getting quite sophisticated and look like legitimate emails to the untrained eye.

To help your loved ones avoid the security risks of phishing scams:

  • Tell them to never give out their credit card numbers, passwords, or other personal information through an email link. Instead, if they get an email from what they believe is a reputable company they already do business with, remind them to log into their account from a web browser, not through any email links. They can also call the company through the number on their website to confirm the validity of the email. 
  • Install anti-virus software to scan their system daily to look for any malicious files that may have been accidentally downloaded through their email. 
  • Encourage them to use a reliable email service provider (Google Mail is usually pretty good at identifying potentially suspicious emails).

Website downloads

Downloading anything from the internet presents a high-security risk if you’re not downloading responsibly. Whether you’re downloading software/apps, images, or other files, malicious code can be downloaded and installed on your computer. 

To help your senior loved ones learn internet safety and download responsibly: 

  • Bookmark reliable sites for your senior to download from. Save these links on their desktop or in their web browser. Make a list of anyone who may email them files so they know who to trust.
  • Install anti-virus software to scan downloads before opening or installing. 
  • Browse with them to ensure they’re downloading from reputable sites. 

Online shopping

Many seniors are holding on to their independence longer by shopping online and having it delivered to their homes. Online shopping is great for groceries and even medications. However, online shopping carries a higher security risk than everyday web browsing. 

To help seniors do their online shopping safely:

  • Bookmark reputable online shops. Some scammers try to copy online shopping websites and steal the information of those who use them. Your loved one may search online for their favourite store and inadvertently land on this phishing website. Encourage them only to use the sites you bookmark. 
  • Review reliable sites together. Show them what to look for in a reliable website. 
  • Keep an eye on their bank accounts. If you notice suspicious charges, activity, or charge attempts, notify your bank immediately. You can also talk to their bank to set up fraud detection alerts or to ask about other banking services they may have to keep a senior safe while shopping online.
  • Use a prepaid credit card. Give your senior a prepaid credit or debit card for online purchases. Then, if that card gets compromised, the scammers don’t have access to their full banking details, minimizing loss and stress for your loved one. 

Social media

To a senior, social media is the ideal social platform to chat with others. However, it’s often so casual that it’s easy to let sensitive personal information slip into a conversation. Account hacking is a common internet safety problem for all ages, especially seniors who typically have less-secured accounts due to not understanding how to secure them. 

To help your senior be safe on social media:

  • Set up strict privacy settings so you can control what personal information is shared in their profiles.
  • Use multi-factor identification to make account hacking more difficult. You can have the site text or email you a code whenever you want to login. 
  • Remind them not to share personal information in their profile or posts. They shouldn’t post their addresses or phone numbers in their profiles (city can be ok). Turn off geo-tagging in posts for further anonymity and safety. 
  • Don’t respond to requests for personal information. No one should be asking for personal information like credit cards, passwords, or addresses over social media (even if it looks like it comes from a reputable business). 

General internet safety tips

Access to the internet is great for otherwise isolated or lonely seniors living at home, in a retirement community, or in a care home. As their caregiver or loved one, you can help them use the internet for their benefit and minimize risk to their privacy or safety. 

Empower the seniors in your life to behave responsibly online. Consider using the internet together so you can see how they interact and point out any potentially dangerous behaviour before it becomes a problem.

The internet can be great for their social needs and help them maintain their independence longer. As their caregiver, you can be a great resource and support your senior loved ones in making their online time enjoyable and safe.