Seniors learn the dos and don’ts of online safety at forum created by state Rep. Puppolo

Nov. 26, 2019 | Sarah Heinonen

Reminder Publishing photo by Sarah Heinonen.

WILBRAHAM – About 40 seniors gathered at the Wilbraham Senior Center on Nov. 19 to listen to experts speak about cybersecurity. The forum, sponsored by state Rep. Angelo Puppolo, chair of the House Committee on Technology and Intergovernmental Affairs, was designed to address scams and online dangers that target seniors.

Puppolo was slated to appear as the first speaker but, his chief of staff explained, he was unable to attend the forum due to having been called back to Boston for emergency legislative business.

Christina Fisher, executive director for Massachusetts in the Northeast for the company TechNet was on hand to take questions from the audience.

One of the speakers was Robin Saunders, director of Communication and Information Management Programs for Bay Path University and adjunct faculty in the Cybersecurity Program at Norwich University.

“I saw a need to educate seniors on technology from someone who speaks the same language,” Saunders said. She said that as a senior herself, she understood that seniors use the internet for many of the same things digital natives do, including Skype, banking, shopping, entertainment and socializing.

Saunders runs two websites. The first,, contains educational resources, her podcast, a blog to educate seniors and a game about passwords and phishing.

The second site,, allows people to ask Saunders about technology and tech safety. She said she usually responds in 24 to 48 hours.

Saunders went over several common scams to which seniors fall prey, including spoofing, which is when a scammer calls from a number that seems local or that the person recognizes; impersonation of a charity, such as a policemen’s or firefighters’ association; and the grandparent scam, in which someone will call pretending to be a grandchild in trouble and asking for money.

“They’ll say, ‘put $100 in a magazine and mail it to this address,’” Saunders said. “If someone is calling you and pressuring you that should be a big red flag.”
Saunders offered several tips, such as, don’t believe anything you see from a text or call claiming to be from the Social Security Administration. She said social security always communicates by letter.

Saunders also urged that if a person is scammed they should tell others, whether that be a friend, family member or the authorities.

“Don’t be ashamed, don’t be embarrassed, it happens to us all,” Saunders said. She shared that it has even happened to her.

The next speaker, Jordan Wheeler, works as a cybersecurity researcher and threat gamification engineer for IBM Security.

“I turn cyber crises into training scenarios,” said Wheeler.

Some of the tips he gave were similar to Saunders’s advice. Like Saunders, he said communication with a sense of urgency is likely a scam.

Wheeler said the reality of hacking is much more like a small company, rather than a man wearing a hoodie, sitting in a dark room, in front of a computer.

He discouraged clicking a link unless the sender is known and trusted. Applications, documents, links and files can all contain malicious code, he said.

“You cannot rely on anyone else to be responsible,” for your safety, Wheeler told the audience.
Another important tool in staying safe online is updating software.

“It’s not just your phone, laptop or computer nowadays,” Wheeler said. There are many things connected to the internet in today’s home, such as smart speakers and security systems.

“The router that connects your home to the internet is the gateway,” and also needs to be updated, he said.

Wheeler encourages clients to use a “passphrase” instead of a password. He explained that a passphrase uses a sequence of words or a sentence instead of one word.

Wheeler said they are both easier to remember and harder to hack. He also warned against reusing passwords. For those who have trouble remembering passphrases, he suggested using passphrase book or an online passphrase manager, which only requires people to remember a single passphrase.

That said, Wheeler cautioned people to be careful of services that offer security for free. Oftentimes, he said, those services sell the information.

He also suggested using “multi-factor authentication,” such as systems in which you input your passphrase and a code is sent to your phone. That way, accessing an account requires something you know (the passphrase) and something you have (the phone.)  Wheeler admits it is less convenient, “but that is the price we pay for security.”

He spoke about being more private on social media. He suggested posting photos of a vacation after people return, so potential thieves don’t know when someone is out of town.

Wheeler warned people not to use “open” or “free” Wi-Fi because, he said, hackers can “listen in.”

Finally, Wheeler cautioned, “don’t just stick it in anywhere.” He said that while USB cables are used to charge devices, they are essentially data cables that can transfer information and those cables can be infected. Wheeler suggested people only use the cable that came with their device and plug it into a wall, not a public kiosk or computer that may be infected or used by hackers.

Being skeptical, Wheeler said, can make someone a more difficult target.

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