Cybersecurity 101: Special Disability Concerns

We’ve all heard of the digital world being used as a tool for crimes: romance scams, fake emergencies, ransomware, and stalking, to name just a few. While anyone can be a victim, disabled users have special concerns:

  • More personal health information on record.
  • Communication problems that make it harder to share concerns.
  • Difficulty recognizing dishonesty in others (a particular problem for autistic people and others with impaired executive-function skills).
  • Prejudice that dismisses complaints as “imagination” when they come from seniors or people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Feelings of loneliness, isolation, or helplessness—vulnerabilities that criminals seek out and exploit.

Says Walter Prescher, BridgingApps Digital Navigator: “My experience is that people who live alone are more susceptible to cyber scams. Widowed older adults are more isolated, and lonelier. They are likely to accept any connection offered in a friendly manner.” The same is true for newly independent young adults in unfamiliar surroundings, especially when disabilities make it hard to build relationships in the “typical” world.

older adult couple smiling at each other with ipad mini in hand

How to Protect Yourself

It may be tempting to play it safe and avoid the digital world altogether. (Especially if your brain tends toward black-or-white thinking, as in, “either you can trust everyone, or you can’t trust anyone.”) But you’d miss out on a lot—including some great assistive technology.

You don’t have to be a digital whiz to learn cyber-precautions. From Walter Prescher: “Simplification is a critical element. For instance, I emphasize making passwords long yet easy to remember. They don’t have to be loaded with special characters: in fact, a password with lots of random characters is often easier to hack than a list of words with personal meaning to the user.”

Other cybersecurity tips:

  • Opt for secure wi-fi over cellular-data connections.
  • Don’t share too much personal information on social media.
  • Beware of new social-media contacts who get personal right away, especially if they make big promises or seem too good to be true.
  • If you want to meet a digital contact in person, the safest option is an organized event that includes other members of a social-media group. Never risk a first-time meeting at anyone’s home or in an isolated area—no matter how well you think you know someone from virtual chatting.
  • A favorite scammer’s trick is to hack legitimate social media accounts, stealing the “identity” of the account holder’s profile. If you get an unexpected request for funds (especially funds to be sent by gift card or cryptocurrency), call the other party directly before you do anything else.
  • If your own account is hacked, see “How to Recover Your Hacked Email or Social Media Account” from the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Walter Prescher: “Always stay aware of what accounts you have, what you order, and what software you use. If you don’t recognize a message sender, or the items in an alleged invoice, or the account that a message warns has ‘issues’—don’t click on any links. If you want to double-check, go directly to the official site and log into your account from there.”
  • Don’t believe any digital message claiming to come from the federal government. Government officials always initiate contact by postal mail.
  • Don’t listen to anyone who tries to rush you into a decision, or asks you to keep the contact a secret. Always discuss uncertain situations with a trusted advisor. 
  • If you’re nervous about making (or about a disabled family member making) impulse decisions, link important accounts to trustworthy supervision. (See “Resources,” below, for some options.)


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