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For Seniors: Keep Personal Information Private on the Internet

Sharing personal information with friends and family enriches your relationships and helps you build new ones. The key is to avoid sharing information with the wrong people and shady companies — because exposing your personal information online is one of your biggest risks, just as it is in the real world.

Criminals come in all flavors, but the more savvy ones collect information online in a very systematic way. Each bit of information is like another piece of a puzzle that, over time, collects to form a very clear picture of your life. And be aware that after criminals collect and organize the information, they never throw it away because they may be able to use it many times over.

Fortunately, information exposure is a risk you have a great deal of control over. Before sharing information such as your date of birth, make sure that you're comfortable with how the recipient will use it. Consider the following points regarding the types of information you might be asked for:

  • Address and phone number: Abuse of this information results in you receiving increased telemarketing calls and junk mail. Although less common, this information may also increase a scammer’s ability to steal your identity and make your home a more interesting target for break-ins.

  • Names of husband/wife, father, and mother (including mother’s maiden name), siblings, children, and grandchildren: This information is very interesting to criminals, who can use it to gain your confidence and then scam you, or use it to guess your passwords or secret question answers, which often include family members’ names. This information may also expose additional family members to ID theft, fraud, and personal harm.

  • Information about your car: Limit access to license plate numbers; VINs; registration information; make, model, and title number of your car; your insurance carrier's name, coverage limits, loan information, and driver’s license number. The key criminal abuse of this information includes car theft and insurance fraud. The type of car you drive may also indicate your financial status, and that adds one more piece of information about you.

  • Information about work history: In the hands of criminals, your work history can be very useful for “authenticating” the fraudsters and convincing people and organizations to provide them with more about your financial records or identity.

  • Information about your credit status: This information can be abused in so many ways that any time you're asked to provide this online, you should say no. Don’t fall for the temptation to check your credit scores for free. Another abuse of credit information is found in free mortgage calculators that ask you to put in personal information in order for them to determine what credit you qualify for.

Many people set automatic responders in their e-mail letting people know when they'll be away from their offices. This is really helpful for colleagues, but exercise caution and limit who you provide the information to. Leaving a message that says, “Gone 11/2-11/12. I’m taking the family to Hawaii for ten days,” may make you a prime target for burglary.

You may need to show your work history, and so may post your résumé on Internet job or business networking sites. Be selective about where you post this information, create a separate e-mail account to list on the résumé, and tell what kinds of work you’ve done rather than give specifics about which companies and what dates.

Interested, legitimate employers can then contact you privately, and you won’t have given away your life history to the world. After you’ve landed the job, take down your résumé. Think of it as risk management — when you need a job, the risk of information exposure is less vital than the need to get the job, but make that info private again when it’s served its purpose.

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