The computer is the fastest growing communications and information tool today. That makes the computer the fastest growing tool used by con artists and committing fraud.
Combine that fact with the following. There are two types of computer users in our country today: Those who have become victims of fraud and those who will become victims of fraud.
This situation exists due to four factors: Computers are commodity items; computers are inexpensive; the information needed to commit fraud is readily available; and the majority of computer users are naive.
Only a few years ago, home computer technology was a luxury reserved for very few, but in the 21st century, computer ownership is widespread. Reasonably powerful computers sell for less than many wide-screen televisions and while the use of computer technology spreads through the population, real education concerning computer use has been lacking.
For many of us, use of a computer is a novelty or something given little consideration — "All I do is email friends and family, browse the internet, or shop online." This situation simply enhances the danger given the amount of personal information available on everyone online.
There are two courses of action for anyone concerned with the situation: Stop using computers or educate yourself. The former approach is simply not an option. While you may stop your use of computers, you cannot stop the accumulation of personal data and information that is readily accessible online to others. All that results from this approach is the reduction of your own knowledge. That leaves you with the need to become educated in best practices.
Education begins by knowing the "do's and don'ts" of computer use framed around a reality: Every action you take and every word you type or say online is being watched and recorded by somebody.
• Don't open clearly fraudulent emails, click on links, or open attachments. (A fraudulent email will often make exaggerated promises.)
• Don't ignore personal threats. While the likelihood of anything occurring is slight, report any threats to authorities.
• Never respond to "alerts" from the government or companies using links or contacts received in the so-called alert. Use response numbers you know to be legitimate such as the phone number appearing on the back of a credit card.
• Don't conduct personal business on an open Wi-Fi network (hot spot) or on a public computer
• Report any contacts you receive that appear to be fraudulent to the company or government agency from which the message allegedly came. You will know immediately if the message is legitimate or a scam.
• Install or update virus and malware software. Frequently, the software is only valid for a year and an update needs to be purchased in order to address new threats.
• If you travel with a computer, purchase VPN (Virtual Private Network) software that encrypts messages and allows you to use public wi-fi without the worry of identity theft.
• Disable "sharing" preferences on laptops or tablets when traveling.
• When using a Wi-Fi home network, use encrypted access and a password to access the network. This will prevent others from accessing your network from cars or other residences.
• As with "alert" emails described above, validate any solicitations from organizations or charities. Utilize websites like charitywatch.org or charitynavigator.org to verify charities and see how the money raised is actually used.
Next week: The Top 10 computer fraud scams.
Elliott Greenblott is the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. The AARP is seeking fraud fighters. Join the AARP Fraud Watch Network and receive watchdog alerts and tips. It's free. Go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork or volunteer by emailing email@example.com, calling 877-434-7598, or by emailing Greenblott at firstname.lastname@example.org.