The Feds Want Your Grandma to Teach You How to Be Safe on the Internet

Instead of treating older adults as helpless victims of online fraud, the government is trying to tap into their social networks to spread the word about Internet security.

Older Americans are avoiding using the Internet—or are using it less than they would otherwise—because of security and privacy concerns. And efforts by government and nonprofit groups to educate seniors about safe Internet practices have been met with limited success.

Now, they're taking a different approach—one that leverages older adults' social networks to spread the word.

Just half of Americans over 65 are doing everything they want to do online, according to a national survey released Tuesday by Hart Research. Asked why they don't use the Internet (or, if they're already online, why they don't use it more), two in five older adults surveyed pointed to security, safety, and privacy concerns.

The same research found that one of the most effective ways to teach older Internet users about safer online practices is through their social networks. According to the study, one in three Americans over 65 say they trust information about Internet privacy and security they hear from family and friends, far more than said they trusted the government or nonprofit organizations for advice on the same topic.

That's why the government has recently tried to tap into older adults' social networks to educate them about online security, enlisting the seniors themselves to teach others how to use the Internet safely.

"In the past, some of the materials that have been prepared for consumer education have been a little bit frightening, very technical, or perhaps written so that someone like me is meant to tell my parents about it," said Terrell McSweeny, a Democratic member of the Federal Trade Commission, at a conference on Internet access for seniors Tuesday.

A better approach, McSweeny said, is "just going directly to older Americans with a straightforward message that makes them feel empowered and also suggests—I think quite rightly—to reach out to their friends and colleagues with the information."

One way the government is trying out this approach is with an FTC program called "Pass It On." The program, which makes its material online as well as in print, encourages older adults to educate themselves about online fraud, and share the information with others.

"The truth is that sharing what you know can help protect someone who you know from a scam," reads the Pass It On home page. "Yes. You. People listen to you because they trust you. You're a friend, a neighbor, a relative."

The program teaches users how to avoid six of the most common types of scams that target seniors, from identity theft to charity fraud, with fact sheets, activities, and PowerPoint presentations. In the program's first 6 months, the FTC received orders for more than 1 million physical copies of "Pass It On" material, according to Lisa Schifferle, an FTC attorney.

"I think there needs to be a societal change in terms of not treating older adults as vulnerable victims but rather seeing older adults, as the 'Pass It On' materials do, as people who do have a lifetime of experience and knowledge and social networks, and they can share that knowledge with others," Schifferle said.

And those social networks aren't limited to other seniors, McSweeny said. Older adults can "play a role within their families in helping their kids and their grandkids protect themselves as well, and I think that's a very natural role for them to play."

(Image via Barabasa/