Social Networking Safety for Baby BoomersMichelle V. Rafter
The fastest growing group on Facebook isn’t teens, Gen Xers or even laid off job seekers looking for a new gig. It’s Baby Boomers -- and as fast as they’re signing on, Internet scam artists are looking for opportunities to exploit them.
Teenagers may have plugged in first, but boomers are catching up. Today, 41 percent of people ages 45 to 54, and 24 percent of people over 55 have an account on Facebook or MySpace, according to Marilynn Mobley, head of national boomer research at Edelman, the global PR firm.
Boomers are signing on to keep tabs on their kids, connect with high school and college buddies, network for business or just to have fun. A greater proportion of the younger generation may have accounts, but boomers hang out for longer when they go online, according to Edelman’s research. “It’s become the watering hole people go to,” Mobley says.
While Facebook and MySpace are the biggest online networks, they’re not the only ones boomers are flocking to. LinkedIn, the business network, is adding a million members every two weeks, many of them over 50. Twitter, the microblogging service that lets people send messages 140 characters at a time, has 6 million users. Tech market researcher eMarketer expects that number to double by the year’s end thanks to word of mouth and endorsements from celebrities like Oprah -- a boomer -- who featured it on her TV talk show recently.
Other social networks have been set up just for the over 50 set, including BOOMj, Eons, TBD and the community forums on AARP, the 51-year-old non-profit founded to advocate for people over 50.
Cybercriminals Prey on Newcomers
All those older social networkers are on a collision course with a growing underclass of Internet cybercriminals using phishing attacks, worms and malware to grab account passwords and credit card numbers for identity theft or other illegal purposes. It’s not that scammers are specifically out to get boomers, Mobley says. But because they’re newcomers and may not be as familiar with the rules of the road, they’re easy targets. “Because we’re seeing such an increase in social networking by boomers, they get caught up in it,” she says.
Here are some recent scams you should watch out for:
Phishing attacks. In early May, Facebook users got hammered by a phishing attack that sent the message "Look at mygener.im" to an infected account’s entire friend list. People who clicked on a link in the message were redirected to a website that loaded spyware on their computers. Facebook reset the passwords of account holders who’d gotten phished but advised users who’d been attacked to run antivirus scanners to make sure their systems weren’t harmed.
Koobface. The Koobface worm that continues to circulate among Facebook and MySpace users also comes disguised as a message from a friend. Anyone who clicks on the link is redirected to a separate website that prompts them to download what appeared to be an Adobe Flash update but is actually malware that transforms their computer into a botnet. Mobley says she’s seen similar worms recently in Facebook messages that appear to be job board listings or e-greeting cards.
Know the Ropes
The best way to avoid getting stung is to pick one or two social networks as your primary online stomping grounds and familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. The more you know your surroundings, the easier it is to spot something that doesn’t look right, Mobley says.
Meanwhile, if you’re going to use social networking sites, here are some rules of the road to help protect yourself from Internet threats:
Don’t click on links. If someone writes on your Facebook wall or sends you a private message on LinkedIn and it includes a link, don’t click on it. It could be completely harmless or a dangerous fake. If you’re not sure, investigate, says Sid Kirchheimer, author of the AARP Bulletin’s ScamAlert column and Scam-Proof Your Life (Sterling). If it’s from a person or company you know, send them an email or pick up the phone and ask them about it, Kirchheimer says.
Don’t over share. If you provide enough information about yourself -- where you live, work, went to school, who you’re married to -- a smart hacker can pull enough of the pieces together to buy your Social Security number and steal your identity, Kirchheimer says. The best way to avoid this is to be judicious about giving out personal information, he says.
Be choosy. Don’t accept invitations to connect with people you don’t know well. Growing up, boomers were taught that to be polite you had to read and reply to every message you received. But when it comes to social networks, you’ve got to unlearn that lesson, Mobley says. “It’s different online. You don’t always owe someone a response,” she says.
Take precautions. You may do everything right and still get caught in a scam, so have an extra layer of protection by keeping antivirus and antispyware software updated and running on your computer or laptop, Kirchheimer says. “They’re not foolproof, but they’re really good and the security suites are the most effective against the newer types of malware that infect social networks,” he says.
Whether they’re looking for a job or just reconnecting with old friends, boomers need to know about social networks, says Jeri Sedlar, author of the workforce retaining book Don’t Retire, Rewire (Alpha), and a senior advisor on mature workforce issues to The Conference Board. “For boomers, everything was done in face time and now it’s done in Facebook,” Sedlar says. “Be aware of them, but walk cautiously.”
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