Fraud watch: Best practices for internet safety and security

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It's time to return to the topic of fraud and computer. We reviewed the "thou shalt not" commandments of computer use to avoid becoming a victim of internet fraud. It's time to be positive — what should be done to ensure safe use.

The first rule of safe computing is to purchase and an use up-to-date computer operating systems, virus protection and malware screening software. Older software provides very little protection. Microsoft and Apple regularly release new operating systems and tweaks while discontinuing service for older system. Even so, nearly one-third of all PCs today are running Windows XP, a system created in the late 1990's and is no longer supported by Microsoft.

Why? In some cases users believe in the old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but in the case of XP it is "broke" and you can't fix it. Other users hope to spare themselves the expense of an update, feel they lack the necessary skills, or don't know an update is necessary. The same reasons are used regarding malware or virus protection with one added issue. This software protection usually is licensed for one year of protection. At the end of that year it is necessary to purchase a license extension. Many users do not. While the "old" software continues to work, it will not be updated without a paid renewal and will not address new threats; it less than effective. Free, less robust, software can be found on the internet but be wary of scammers making "free" offers.

Other important steps include the following:

- Recognize the letters "https" or a padlock icon in the URL (address line) of the web browser. These tell you that the website is encrypted and therefore safer to enter personal and financial information.

- For public or hotel wifi, purchase and use a VPN (virtual private network). It will encrypt usage while masking your computer identity and location. Cost can vary so check out the features before purchasing.

- Familiarize with your email software. It will allow you to filter messages and creation of rules to automatically move unwanted items to the trash or junk folder.

- When traveling, disable "sharing" on your portable devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Sharing can be found in the preferences or settings features of the operating system.

- Use password encryption and create a robust, different password for each device as well as for any home network. The lack of this has the same effect as walking out of your home leaving the front door open and turning on a neon sign that says "House is open, we are away! Come rob us!" Internet criminals will love you.

- Validate before you donate online. Cyber criminals are very good at designing believable websites for charities and non-profits. If you choose to make a donation, be sure that the web site is legitimate and if you have any doubts, contact the organization using a reliable phone number or email address.

If you are the victim of cyber crime, report it. Far too often these crimes go unreported with authorities estimating that less than one quarter of internet fraud cases are actually reported. Cases are excused away because they're embarrassing, they happens to everyone, they're hard to know where to report the scam or they are just a small loss. Reporting is critical. While you may never recover money lost to scams, you will at least provide law enforcement with a more complete view of what is taking place and help alert others.

Report the fraud to the right authority. If it involves a government agency, contact that agency directly; if it is a financial institution or business, call or email them immediately; if you know it is local, contact local law enforcement. The Federal Government and all states have contacts for internet crime: FBI — www.ic3.gov; Massachusetts Attorney General — www.mass.gov/ago/consumer- resources; New Hampshire Attorney General — www.doj.nh.gov/site- map/consumers.htm; Vermont Attorney General's Office — www.uvm.edu/consumer

If you need assistance in deciding what to do, call the AARP Fraud Watch Hotline, (877) 908-3360. Trained volunteers will discuss the situation with you and provide direction in actions that can be taken.

The final installment of this series will examine the most common cases of internet fraud.

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