How to Protect Senior Citizens from Online Scams
It’s not hyperbole to say that every one of us is a potential target for online scams, fraud, and cyberattack. We all have valuable assets that malicious actors want, whether it’s money or our personal data.
While any one of us could be the next cyber-scam victim, cybercriminals have a soft spot for one demographic group over all the rest: senior citizens.
This is in large part due to the fact that seniors are far more likely to engage with a scam than a person in any other age group. In a report from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, individuals over the age of 60 lost the most money to fraud in 2021.
In recognition of Elder Abuse Awareness Month, this blog is intended to draw attention to the the most common scams targeting senior citizens, while offering practical methods for prevention, detection, and response.
Why cybercriminals seek out seniors
There are a number of reasons why seniors make an attractive target for cybercriminals.
To start, senior citizens tend to be more trusting than younger adults. A study from Northwestern University researchers examined nearly 200,000 people ages 14 to 99. They found that the older subjects were far more likely to trust a stranger than their younger counterparts. This study affirms that seniors are less likely to differentiate a genuine appeal or opportunity from one that is malicious or fraudulent.
Second, many senior citizens often live alone, and such loneliness is easy for scammers to exploit. For example, if a scammer was to reach out to an older person via phone, that elderly individual is more likely than a person in their mid 20s to end up talking to the bad actor. In most cases, this is simply because they want companionship.
In the first of its kind study, researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC found individuals over the age of 50 who described themselves as lonely or reported having strained personal relationships are more likely to fall victim to financial fraud.
And as we know, senior citizens are far from digital natives. Many lack the digital sophistication that is inherent to older Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Z to guard against stealthy scammers.
Common scams deployed against seniors
While there are too many scams targeting elderly populations to list in this article, there are a few that stand out. Here are some of the most common scams reported to the Internet Crime Complaint Center last year:
- Tech support scams: Cybercriminals reach out to a target and claim there is an issue with one of their devices. They will then try to convince the target to let them take control of the device to steal information; ask them to send over money via wire transfer, or purchase gift cards, to solve the phony problem.
- Romance scams: A cybercriminal will adopt a fake persona and reach out to unsuspecting targets. They will appear as though they are someone who is kind and caring. But ultimately, this person will claim to need help with a problem, and will ask their target to send over money to fix it.
- Vacation/lottery scams: Seniors may receive messages claiming they’ve won a vacation or the lottery, but in order to claim either of these prizes, they need to turn over sensitive information such as their bank account information, or a monetary fee.
- “Grandparent” scams: Cybercriminals will pose as a grandchild, telling their “grandparents” they are in trouble, and the only way to get out of the situation is for them to send money.
- Government impersonator scams: Cybercriminals will pose as a government official, telling the target they are in danger, or a loved one is in danger, and the only way to avoid harm is to send over money or personally identifiable information.
How to protect seniors from becoming scam victims
Cybercriminals have plenty of methods to try and steal from senior citizens, but that does not mean there aren’t ways to protect your loved ones. Here are a few tangible actions for you to help protect the elderly people in your life:
- Education: Sit down with your parents and grandparents and talk to them about these schemes. A good place to start is telling them to be skeptical about what they see online and to slow down and think before taking any action. Tell them why they shouldn’t rush to answer every email. Tell them that no one from the government or any tech company will ever reach out to them, and that if they receive a deal that’s too good to be true, it probably is.
- Ask questions: If a senior in your life tells you about a deal they received, ask them questions about it. Who offered it? Where did it come from? Did they want anything in exchange for it? Have they actually received the deal in question? By asking these questions, you may be able to break the illusion and open their eyes to a scam.
- Report the crime: If you know a senior citizen that has unfortunately fallen victim to one of these scams, or has even made contact with a scammer, help them report it and recoup funds, if possible. You can report these criminals to the FTC at their designated website ReportFraud.ftc.gov. Adding a fraud alert on their credit reports is also a good idea.
It may seem overwhelming to keep yourself protected, let alone protecting additional family members. But you do not have to fight this fight alone. Instilling knowledge of the most common scams, and instituting basic controls, can go a long way in protecting the personal digital lives of those who you love.