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PRIME: Staying connected this winter, and year-round

Linda Fitzgerald

As we hunker down in anticipation of another New England winter, we now have the ability to stay connected with friends and family without leaving the warmth of our homes. With a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone, our chances to engage with others are virtually limitless.

Today, for the first time, more than half of all older adults are online – with 70 percent of AARP members surfing the web at least three to five times a week.

We are making Internet use a regular part of our lives. We email, visit favorite websites for news and information, shop, play games, video chat with our grandchildren using Skype, Face Time and other applications, and converse with friends and family on social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.

In fact, the number of seniors who use these social sites has grown significantly – by 150 percent – over the past few years.

While the online world provides us with added opportunity to stay connected, it also can help seniors fight isolation.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, those of us who use digital technologies regularly are more social than the average person. We are more likely to visit coffee shops and parks, or to volunteer with local organizations.

As we navigate online more and more, especially for those who are new users, we must be smart and savvy – just as we are offline. Like robbers and vandals, criminals prey on victims through computers in the form of hackers, spammers, virus writers, identity thieves and more.

We can protect ourselves by following a few guidelines:

• Use caution when you click links that you receive in emails or messages on social networks from your friends.

• Know what you've posted about yourself. To break into an online account, hackers search for answers to personal security questions, such as a birthday, home town, high school class or mother's maiden name.

• Don't always trust that a message is really from the sender. If you suspect that a message is fraudulent, use an alternative method to contact your friend to find out. Hackers can break into accounts and send messages that look like they're from friends, but are not.

• Don't allow social networking sites to scan your email address book. This helps avoid giving away email addresses of your friends and family.

• Type web addresses into the browser, such as Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, directly or use personal bookmarks. If you click a link to a website through email or another site, you could be directed to a fake online establishment.

• Be selective about who you accept as a friend on a social network. Sometimes identity thieves create fake profiles to get information from others.

• Assume everything you put on a social network is permanent.

As this new horizon continues to expand, we have more opportunities to connect, learn and grow.

Many Councils on Aging and senior centers offer classes to help us become familiar with the technology and learn how to navigate the web, while community colleges may offer tutorials on how to get started with Facebook. Of course, AARP also has a variety of free resources online, from how-to guides to tips for safe social networking.

I look forward to seeing you online!

Linda F. Fitzgerald is the volunteer state president of AARP Massachusetts, which represents more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in the Bay State. Connect with AARP Massachusetts online; like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. This editorial appears in the January 2013 edition of PRIME, the monthly mature market magazine.

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