- Why Are Senior Citizens Targeted?
- Common Security Issues
- Email Scams
- Fake Websites
- Phone Calls
- Health Scams
- Relationship Scams
- Tips for Senior Citizens
- Reporting Online Crimes
- Official Advice
- Useful Resources
Why Are Senior Citizens Targeted?
Senior citizens represent the section of society that has seen the introduction of home computers and the internet in their adult years. Most working-age adults have grown up with computers as just another device around the home. Senior citizens have had to adjust their behavior to accommodate the changes they have brought to their lifestyle. It's now estimated that around 70% of senior citizens in the US use the internet. The figure is similar for Canada and even higher for the UK. There is a significant proportion of the elderly population who are not entirely savvy when it comes to online security, making them vulnerable to scammers and fraudsters. There are many senior citizens with savings and investments that fund their retirement. This provides an additional incentive for these criminals to specifically target them. This perfect storm of low awareness of security and high wealth has put senior citizens firmly in the stoplight for these criminals.
We are all living longer, and with age comes issues relating to memory and mental agility. Fraudsters look to exploit any uncertainty or confusion in their victims to be successful. High-pressure sales techniques, a phony sense of urgency, and a false sense of familiarity are all more effective on older people. Senior citizens can tend to be both overly trusting and overly confident, a recipe for potential disaster.
Another issue is that fraudsters are organized. They keep records of who has fallen victim to their scams and share these, for a price, with other fraudsters. This means that once a person has fallen victim once, the likelihood is that they will be specifically and aggressively targeted by other scams.
Common Security Issues
Many security issues commonly target senior citizens. We've listed a selection here, but the threats are constantly evolving, so no one knows what the scammer's next trick might be. The National Council on Aging has published their 2021 Top 10 Financial Scams Targeting Seniors, the latest examples of the issues listed here.
Senior citizens are commonly targeted with emails purportedly from legitimate sources such as banks or insurance companies. The emails ask the recipient to provide personal information or include a link to a website that prompts them to enter such details. In reality, the emails are from a scammer looking to obtain valuable information such as social security numbers or bank account details.
Regular giveaways are spelling mistakes and poor grammar. Instructions typically convey unnecessary urgency, such as orders to provide details now or your account will be closed. They include requests for personal information that a legitimate company would never ask for, such as a password or pin. Microsoft offers some excellent advice for protection against scam emails here.
Be on your guard for any offer that is too good to be true or news of a win in a lottery you never entered. The promise of an exciting prize can be hard to resist. Still, the reality is that unexpected wins seldom happen. If the email includes a link, this may well be a means to infect the user's computer with a virus.
If you are unsure if the email is legitimate or not, contact the organization that you think it has come from. Always use contact details from their official website and not the details provided in the email. If in doubt, phone them up.
It's simple to change the name of the sender of an email to make it look like it has come from someone you know. If it doesn't look right, or it's asking you to do something unusual, check with the person who sent it. If in doubt, give them a call or send a text. Nobody minds if you are cautious.
A trick that scammers use is to set up a copy of an official website using a slightly different internet address. They then use search engines and emails to point visitors to the fake website. It is effortless to create a phony website that looks identical to the real version.
One type of fake website looks like an actual website and is intended to steal the visitor's login details. These can be sophisticated enough that once the user has logged in, they are directed to the actual website and remain unaware that their username and password have been stolen. The scammer can then use these details later to commit fraud.
Another type of fake website emulates an official government service such as applying for a passport or driving license. They act as intermediaries in the application process, charging the user a fee for the service that would not be incurred if the official government website was visited directly.
Always carefully check the website address in the browser and compare it against the official website address that can be found on the organization's correspondence. This article lists seven ways to spot a scam website.
A common trick is for a caller to claim to be from a tax authority such as the IRS (US) or HMRC (UK). They will either get you that you owe them money and ask for a payment or tell you that you are due a rebate and ask for your bank details. Tax authorities will never make contact in this manner. Scammers use the fact that communication with tax authorities can be unsettling to coerce victims into taking actions that they would not ordinarily take.
Another common scam is to receive a phone call from someone claiming to be from your internet service provider or a company such as Microsoft. They claim that their company has detected a problem with your computer, and they need you to follow their instructions to fix this. Often, they include a sense of urgency by claiming your computer has a virus, and you need to fix it right away, or you may lose all your savings. The reality is that these scammers will provide instructions that enable them to remotely login into your computer. Once they have access, it may look like they are fixing things. Still, they are actually installing malware and stealing whatever valuable information they can find.
Remember, no company such as AT&T or Microsoft will ever ring you up to help you fix a problem. Hang up straight away and block the number that they used. Often, they will call from an international phone number.
Malware is malicious code that can be unintentionally downloaded from websites, emails, or other forms of messages. This code may do any number of things. Spyware monitors what you search for on the internet and provides this information to advertisers. Keyloggers record what a user types on their keyboard, allowing it to steal username and password information. Viruses can spread by sending copies of the malicious code to your friends and family by sending infected emails to all your contacts.
Internet security software should be installed on all internet-connected devices. There are basic free applications available for domestic use and relatively low-cost packages that offer better protection. The security software must be kept up to date to get the maximum benefit.
Senior citizens are often targeted with adverts for miracle health products offering to cure conditions or improve the quality of life. Usually, these focus on disorders common in the elderly such as arthritic pain, memory deterioration, and hair loss. These products often appear to be provided by a reputable online pharmacy. The reality is that the products may at best be a low-quality imitation of a legitimate product and at worst contain harmful or even life-threatening ingredients.
If you ever need to purchase medical or healthcare products online, only use legitimate and trusted websites. Never be tempted by suspiciously low prices or unproven health benefit claims.
There is a prevalence of scammers using social media networks and dating websites to seek out victims to extort money from. Sometimes they will claim to be a friend or relative that needs money sent to them urgently to pay a medical bill or because they are stranded in a foreign company. The scams work because they create a situation where the victim feels that they have to act straightway rather than check if the story is true. It is relatively simple to impersonate someone on social media so that the victim thinks that they are dealing with someone that they know.
Another trick is to make contact via a dating website and establish a relationship that allows them to request money. Often pretending it is a short-term loan to solve an immediate crisis or pay for travel to meet up with the victim. The loan will never be repaid. An excuse will be made why the trip was canceled.
Always be cautious when dealing with someone online. Look for red flags such as someone claiming to be from the same country working overseas but looking for a partner in your country. You can only really be sure who a person is once you've met them face to face, in a safe public environment, of course. If in doubt, verify the facts before acting and be on your guard for sudden urgent requests for money. Never catch a flight to a foreign country with a suitcase full of cash, whatever they say their crisis is!
As a variation on the relationship scams, fraudsters often try to take control of social media accounts of elderly people to contact their family and request money for some emergency situation. Keep your online accounts secure using strong passwords.
Tips for Senior Citizens
The resources we've linked include lots of tips aimed at keeping senior citizens safe online. Here is a summary of the critical advice that applies to everyone, regardless of age and technical prowess.
- Always use strong passwords online. If you have trouble remembering passwords, use a tool such as a password manager to help.
- Always use good security software on any device that connects to the internet and keep it up to date.
- Make sure your devices are protected with strong passwords or pins so no one else can use them when you're not around. This is essential if you're a resident in a care home or have care staff visiting your home. Without protection, anyone could pick up a device and get access to private information or download malware.
- Make sure your internet is secure. If you use wi-fi, make sure it is set to use the most robust security possible and protect with a strong password.
- Only use reputable websites for online purchases and check the website is secure as indicated by the padlock symbol and the letters "https" at the beginning of the website address. Check their shipping and refund policies, so there are no surprises if something goes wrong. If in doubt, ask family and friends if they have any recommendations of good websites to use.
- Double-check all the details before committing to any purchase. While consumer laws provide some protection, they won't help with non-refundable products such as financial products, travel tickets, or custom-made items.
- Keep an eye on your bank and savings accounts for any suspicious activity such as payments you don't remember or recipients you don't recognize.
If you are unsure about anything, get support. It could be a family member or a friend, a caregiver, or a local trusted expert that offers support as a service. For senior citizens, the best support can usually be obtained from grand-children if you have any. They are usually the most technologically savvy family members; often, they provide their services in return for sugar-laden treats.
Reporting Online Crimes
For problems with eCommerce services in counties including the US, Canada, and the UK, a reporting website hosted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is available here. The information is shared with law enforcement agencies in the participating countries.
For investment scams, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has an online facility to report suspected securities fraud or wrongdoing here.
In the US, the FBI runs an online Internet Crime Complaint Center where users can report if they have been a victim of an internet-based crime.
The Department of Justice also provides a list of resources for reporting various computer and internet-related crimes here.
In Canada, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre website provides advice for reporting. It hosts a newly developed mechanism for online reporting of cybercrime and fraud.
In the UK, the Action Fraud website provides the national reporting center for fraud and cybercrime.
In the US, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provide resources under the 'STOP.THINK.CONNECT' service banner. Their resources for Older Americans include tips and advice and links to other US government resources.
The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) is a US public/private partnership that is part of the STOP.THINK.CONNECT program that provides Privacy Tips for senior citizens.
The FBI also offers helpful information on common scams and crimes targeted at the senior citizens on their Elder Fraud webpage.
In Canada, the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security offers Information and Guidance.
In the UK, the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) offers cybersecurity Advice for individuals and families.
Tips are provided by ConnectSafely, a US-based non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about safety, privacy, security, and digital wellness: the Senior's Guide to Online Safety. They have also produced a useful downloadable Senior's Guide for Online Safety that can be printed and shared.
Also, for US seniors, SafeWise is a security research company that offers Internet Security Advice for senior citizens as part of its overall home security services. Similarly, US insurance advisor CyberInsureOne provides a guide to keeping Seniors Safe Online.
AgeUK, the UK-based charity that looks after seniors citizens' interests, has provided an excellent guide to Staying Safe Online - Tips for Older People.
Home Instead Senior Care is a global business that provides domiciliary care for the elderly. Their Protect Seniors Online public education program offers some helpful information: 10 Cybersecurity Best Practices for Older Adults. Their website also has a quiz to test if you can Spot an Online Scam.
The Center for Cyber Safety and Education, part of the International Information System Security Certifications Consortium Inc. (ISC)², provides Cyber Safety Resources for Senior Citizens with some good essential advice.
Enough Is Enough is a Canadian non-profit organization that provides valuable resources around internet safety, including Internet Safety 101: Cybersecurity for seniors.
Advice for Canadians is also available from the Get Cyber Safe national public awareness campaign, including their seniors' guide to staying cyber safe during Covid-19.
Security software company Sophos offers advice for protecting senior citizens from cyberattacks on its website to promote its products. Norton also provides similar advice on their website for the same marketing purposes.
The multinational technology conglomerate Cisco Systems, Inc has produced an online booklet called Keeping your Family Safe Online that includes a section on protecting senior citizens
Finally, the AARP (formerly called the American Association of Retired Persons) is a US-based special interest group focusing on issues affecting the over-fifties. They offer advice for the children of senior citizens to help Protect their Parents from Scams.