Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

The One Thing Every Non-Technical Person Needs to Know

Even if you’re a techie, this is an important concept to remember.

If there's one precaution I want everyone to embrace, it's this.
The Best of Ask Leo!

Real, or Fake?

Question: What should every non-technical person know about the internet, social media, smart phones, technology, or cyber privacy and security?

It took me a millisecond to answer this. It might even be one of my most important answers ever.

Don’t believe everything you read or watch.

From headlines designed to get you to click, content designed to enrage you, and poorly researched and vetted content, misinformation is everywhere.

You need to be able to tell truth from fiction and know not to trust what you cannot verify.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!


The one thing you need to know

Don’t believe everything you read. Be skeptical. Question the headlines, social media shares, claims, and outrage you encounter online. Most of the time, it’s not designed to inform you, but rather to scare or enrage you into taking unnecessary, even ill-advised, actions.

Clickbait and more

The whole concept of “clickbait” has transformed from a simple “you won’t believe what happened next” headlines to just about anything phrased with the goal of getting you to click through to an article and view the advertisements there.

The same thing is true for social media interactions. Anything benefiting from more shares, likes, and views can be manipulated to encourage those actions, and the manipulators have little regard to the veracity of the content.

You may think this is mostly about political and social issues. While it certainly applies there, my perspective is that it’s just as pervasive in other areas of information flow.

Misinformation and misdirection is everywhere

The very topics you’re asking about — internet, social media, smart phones, technology, cyber privacy, and security — are themselves often the subjects of inflammatory, misleading, and fear-mongering headlines and content. The goal seems to be to scare you, not inform you. Scaring you gets you to pay more attention (or even money) to those doing the scaring.

No, the latest vulnerability will probably not affect you. Yes, your email address was exposed in a recent breach — so? At worst, you’ll probably get more spam. Yes, social media and other sites and services collect a ton of information. Does it affect you? Probably not.

Sure, ads that follow you may seem creepy, but do they really harm you? Ninety-nine times out of 100, the answer is a very strong no.

The other 1%

We do not live in a black and white world, and you need to understand probability and risk. Of course there are situations where individuals are adversely impacted. Someone’s computer is impacted by a vulnerability. Perhaps their exposed email address leads to a successful phishing attack. Maybe the information collected by social media leads to identity theft or harassment.

You’re much less likely to be affected by any of that than headlines lead you to believe. Don’t let the headlines scare you, mislead you, or worse, cause you to take unnecessary or ill-advised actions.

The chances are that whatever you’re reading about, from technological flaws to the latest health scare, affects very few people. Aside from basic precautions you should have in place anyway, there’s typically nothing you need to do because you are not at imminent risk.

Do this

The single most important thing you can do is to remain skeptical.


Don’t believe everything you read.

When consuming information, ask yourself if the claims are overblown, the risk is overstated, or the benefits are over-promised. Is it too good (or bad) to be true? Look for independent confirmation if you’re the least bit concerned.

Most of all, don’t let fear resulting from misinformation prevent you from embracing and using all that the world, and particularly technology, offers.

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

Podcast audio


12 comments on “The One Thing Every Non-Technical Person Needs to Know”

  1. Good article. No matter how vigilant you are, you can still get stung. I recently clicked on a link and was taken to an offer that was too good to be true, and despite that little voice telling me not to, I fell for it and filled in my credit card number to pay the big fee of one dollar. The minute I clicked on pay this amount, I was immediately taken to a porn site and knew I’d been had. When I checked my bank site, lo and behold, thee was a $55.53 charge to a name i didn’t recognize. But I looked it up and went to their website and had the charge refunded, Over the next few days, I kept an eye on my bank site and found two more charges, $13 and $53, both showing different payees. I also had those two refunded. Then I spoke to someone at my bank and we both decided they were trying small amounts to see if they went through, and if so, they would hit me for the big one. So I had to give up the credit card I’d had for years, and had the number memorized. In all the years had that card, this was only the 2nd time I’ve been stung. Now I have a new, unfamiliar number… .

  2. I get tons of garbage everyday telling me that I have won something from go carts to watches, to TV’s, lawsuit settlement claims from places I have never been. Claims of merchandise and wins from Walmart, Sony, Ace Hardware, Apple, Sam’s Club, Best Buy, Powerball, FedEx, UPS, to name a few, and all I need to do is verify my address and pay a small shipping charge.
    I simply DELETE them all, but whomever they are, they never give up because they keep sending 2nd and 3rd notices with warnings that I am going to lose the service or product if I don’t act.

  3. Deleting spam is like like taking a towel to wash some water off the face of your dike. If you want to significantly minimize the dike leaks, more direct action needs to be taken. Those actions depend on how much control you have over the path taken by the spam. For instance if you use email tied to your own website, you can go to cPanel (if your ip uses that) to blacklist the origins of spam addresses. Yes, there are ways to get around that by hackers but by using wildcards in the blacklisted addresses, and by being persistent, the spam-attacks can be kept to a minor trickle.
    If you depend on free email addresses, your defense choices become limited.

    • In my experience those techniques are not longer effective. Not even close. There’s no pattern to where spam comes from — either via IP address or email address — spammers routinely change those on every message so there’s no way to block even a pattern to have any effect.

    • It’s easier and more effective to mark those emails as spam in your email program of webmail interface and let it learn to recognize spam. Spammers constantly change their spoofed origins so blocking a URL or IP number is futile.

  4. Thank you, Leo! You have put into words what I have been doing for decades, yes, decades, in fact almost since I started using the Internet.

    When my children were young, I taught them about ‘Stranger Danger’. I learned the concept from my mother. She taught me not to trust strangers because I had no way of knowing what their intentions were. That was excellent advice, and it kept both me and my children safer when we were young.

    What follows are my opinions, formed from my personal experiences. I hope they are helpful to others.

    Learning to recognize stranger danger is more relevant today than it ever was, not just for children, but for all of us, especially when we’re on the Internet. Everything we see or hear on the Internet is created by strangers, from websites to social media to email and beyond. Even when I see a post, receive an email, or encounter any other form of correspondence that purports to come from a family member or a friend, before I trust what I see/read, I ensure that it really came from them. If I confirm that it came from them, I ask for their source of information, so I can go and evaluate it for myself. I make up my own mind about everything, so to me it is very important that I evaluate the source of information as well as the information itself. I think that doing so is especially important when evaluating political advertisements because I want to do the best job I can when I cast my vote. I can only do that by doing my homework before I make any decisions.

    One of the most important things I think it is important to recognize is the difference between opinions and facts. Facts relate to things that actually happen. Opinions are beliefs people hold to be true, but they are not facts. When I see opinions being reported as if they are facts, my first reaction is to ignore them, but that is not enough, so I go and validate them, then respond, either noting that what was stated was accurate or otherwise but should have been presented as an opinion and not as a fact, and that any source of information should have been provided too. Sadly, presenting opinion as fact is one-way fake news gets started, and propagates.

    These are my thoughts. Take them for what they’re worth. I hope you find value in them,


  5. I have found the latest onslaught of “You have won” spams have an odd space or two in the title, or a small l replaced with a capital I or similar. I always hover over the sender name for the actual email address (I operate through a webmail page). It is really amazing that Walmart uses Gmail.

  6. Using vendor specific virtual cards is a good way of protecting your real credit card. You can limit transaction value or make it a one time use.
    This also limits impact if a vendor’s site is hacked and the card credentials leaked. You just cancel the virtual card and all the other subscriptions are unaffected.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.