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A few weeks ago, my parents fell victim to the ‘relative in distress’ scam we shared in our TAAG guest blog.

Using information they obtained on-line, scammers convinced my parents their grandson, Robert, had caused an automobile accident and hurt an elderly couple.  ‘Robert’ told them he’d been texting and gone through a stop sign, and with his parents out of town and his first job out of college about to start, this mistake was going to cost him his job.  Fortunately, a neighbor (who happened to be an attorney) was going to help him work through the court system, pay the fines and stay out of jail, but he needed their help.

Like the con-man in Paper Moon selling Bibles to widows, these men had just enough information about Mom and Dad to pull them in by their heartstrings, and allowed them to fill in the blanks of information they didn’t already have.  As a result, they successfully took money from them.  But more importantly they took away their self-confidence in their ability to live independently, and their pride in managing their finances.

This incident, along with others, has started a discussion about moving from their home to one here in Cincinnati closer to me, my sister and my daughter’s family but no decisions have been made.  The questions and stumbling blocks families face considering such a change will be a subject of a future blog.  Today I want to address what the world may know about you, how it can be used against you, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Google Yourself

Part of the reason why my parents didn’t doubt that ‘Robert’ was calling was the information and detail built into his story.  They’re not big users of social media or technology, and didn’t believe much private information would be accessible about them on-line.  But simply typing my father’s name into Google gave us his age, phone number and address, the different versions of his name he goes by, work he’s done as a Rotarian, contributions to their local university and church, and other information.

It is virtually impossible to keep your information hidden from the outside world, but if you are a user of the internet it is possible to limit some of the information it gathers about you.

Your Browser

It starts when you log onto your computer and use Internet Explorer, Chrome, Foxfire or any other browser to go to your favorite websites.  Information is being captured by your browser and retained to determine what advertisements and articles you’re drawn to, and this data is used to send you more information and ads targeted to your interests.  To see what’s being collected by your browser when you open it, go to this somewhat scary site (turn on your speakers if you want to have it talk to you too) or scroll down the page on this one to see what’s being gathered about you.

Facebook, Google and Twitter

Facebook is where most of the information used against my parents was gathered.  The scammers knew my nephew’s parents were attending a wedding out of town, the name and locations of aunts and uncles in his mother’s family, his twin brother’s name and what he was doing.  You can set up your Facebook account to limit your shared information, but it doesn’t guarantee your account won’t be hacked or used to gain information in some other way.

Facebook, Google and Twitter all use the information they gather about us to sell to advertisers to allow them to better target promotions and feed us more information about subjects we’re interested.  Here’s how to see what Facebook already knows about you and what Google has collected about you as well.  Even Twitter is tracking where you’ve been clicking and what you like.


While receiving news and advertising targeted to your interests may not bother you, the emails you open might be tracked too.

When you open an email from an advertiser, most are imbedded with an email tracker to let the sender know when you’ve opened the email, clicked on links inside the email, or viewed the attachments.  Marketing services like HubSpot and AdEspresso promote it to businesses as a way to target interested customers.  Software has been developed to stop the snooping, but these solutions are not foolproof and have issues of their own – such as a small company having access to all of your incoming email for examination.

Tools to Protect You 

There are privacy tools you can use to protect yourself, but they are not perfect.  Four free privacy tools used to block advertisers from watching you were reviewed and evaluated by the New York Times last year.  Browser extensions can be used to block ads and protect you from being tracked as well.  But if installed incorrectly, the tools can ‘break’ the sites you read and render them unusable until you tailor them to allow what you want to read and block what you don’t.

The best advice I found while researching this blog was included in an article Protecting Your Digital Life in 9 Easy Steps, which included protecting your computer’s hard drive, handling your passwords and using two-factor authentication on your email accounts.  But in the case of my parents and many other clients we’ve helped, most scams began with an old-fashioned phone call, spam or phishing email designed to pull the person in.

The best defense against a scam is maintaining a level of healthy skepticism about phone calls and emails from people we don’t know, and even those we think we do.  I regularly block callers who aren’t already identified on my phone, so they aren’t able to continue to call me with warnings that the IRS is after me for unpaid taxes or Microsoft needs to log on to fix my computer.  I don’t click on an email link contained in an email unless I know to expect it.

The trouble is as we age, we become less able to discern the safe from the suspicious, making us vulnerable.   And the scams will continue to multiply, like this recent one luring people in with a “secret” government bank account they can use to pay their bills.

Our best protection comes from watching out for each other and our loved ones, as the challenges will continue to evolve along with technology.  Think twice before taking that call or clicking that link, and be careful out there!