Older people increasingly targeted by online and email scams


Vulnerable population

When people think of cybersecurity threats, said Stephanie Helm, they often only think about the technical side – how electronic devices can be compromised and data stolen.

They sometimes forget the human side of the equation, but this is where the elderly are often particularly at risk.

“There is a technical vulnerability that can be exploited, whether it’s someone’s password, a vulnerability because they failed to update the device to include a fix. , or maybe he’s using unsecured WiFi when he’s in a public place, ”said Helm, director of the MassCyberCenter. “So there is a technical element that everyone who uses the Internet is faced with today. “

Equally critical, however, is what she calls “individual social engineering,” where a victim willfully discloses information based on someone engaging them in a personal way.

Stephanie Helm

“They are professionals who know how to push those emotional buttons and continue this relationship in the hope that someone will disclose information.”

“Seniors may not be comfortable with technology to secure their information,” she said, “and they may be more vulnerable to social engineering”.

Helm shared these and other thoughts in a webinar presented last week by LeadingAge Massachusetts, titled “Cyber ​​Security: Helping Seniors Stay Safe on the Internet”. She joined Rubesh Jacobs, managing director of 24/7 Techies USA, and Judy Miller, director of technology and accounting at Kendal in Oberlin, Ohio, to discuss why seniors are increasingly the plagued by online and email scams, and what can be done about it.

“The number of financial loss scams has increased dramatically since 2019,” Jacobs said, citing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report that the number of online scams tripled between 2019 and 2020, exceeding phone call scams – which have actually decreased. slightly – for the first time. Meanwhile, email scams have more than doubled.

“The sharpness of this peak is shocking,” he added. “We have also noticed this trend in our own call centers; 28% of the calls for help we receive are related in some way to fraudulent activity online. “

Americans aged 60 and over fall prey to tech support scams – in which someone masquerades as a computer technician to remotely access the victim’s computer, according to the FTC – about 475% more often than those aged 20 to 59. (On the other hand, the younger group is the victim of online shopping scams 60% more often than the elderly.)

“The elderly are really in this bond where a criminal can reach them through technical means, or they can reach them through social engineering” – and often a combination of the two, Helm said. “The protections you put in place have to take both of those things into account, because you don’t know exactly what things a person might be most vulnerable to. I think it’s really embarrassing.

Judy Miller

Judy Miller

“Seniors lose an average of $ 500 or more when they get ripped off, sometimes because they are often confident and polite, own their own homes and have good credit, so they are a good target. “

Effective cybersecurity, she explained, sees people, processes, and technology working together to make a person more resilient and susceptible to scams.

“The components of social engineering are worth thinking about,” she added, noting that a scam can start with a realistic bot, over the phone or online, which turns into a live con artist if the victim answers.

These victims, Helm said, are often alone and want to talk to someone, or they trust and are grateful that someone wants to help them with a problem, which is why scammers try to build trust.

One of the reasons for the recent increase in the number of cases is that many older people were much more isolated from the start of 2020, with family members avoiding most visits until the COVID-vaccines arrived. 19, she noted. But families need to be engaged on these topics. “Having the ability to ask questions or talk about things that have been presented to them in a safe manner is really important. “

But the elderly are far from the only victims, Helm said. “If they keep the engagement going, they’re professionals who know how to push those emotional buttons and continue that relationship in the hope that someone will disclose information.”

It takes a village

Miller works for Kendal Corp. for 28 years. She has therefore seen these threats evolve in her own establishment, which offers independent and assisted living units, memory care and skilled nursing care.

“Seniors lose an average of $ 500 or more when they get ripped off, sometimes because they are often confident and polite, own their own homes and have good credit, so they are a good target, ”she explained. . “They have also fallen prey to computer incidents due to their increased use of the Internet.”

The scams that have targeted its residents have taken many forms, from imposters posing as government agencies or legitimate businesses asking for payments to bogus but enticing gift card offers, and much more. Most come from email, she noted.

When Jacobs asked Miller how often she heard such things, she replied, “It’s almost more important how much we don’t hear about it. “

To make sure people stay educated, if she hears about a scam targeting a resident, all residents are alerted, and some tech-savvy residents will even spread the word themselves if they encounter an attempt to do so. fraud. “It really engages the whole community to help each other to prevent some of these things from happening. “

Once a con artist gains someone’s trust, Helm said, he often introduces an element of urgency – the idea that the victim must act now to get a deal or avoid a penalty or legal trouble.

“We should talk about how these scams exist and give older people the confidence that they can recognize when it doesn’t make sense and avoid that sense of urgency to act, because that’s where you do. a mistake, ”she explained. “It’s perfectly okay to say, ‘I do all my business in the mail – send me a letter in the mail and I’ll get back to you.’

But that’s easier said than done, she admitted, especially at a time when many older people – and younger, for that matter – have been more isolated than usual.

“I think it’s difficult for anyone in society to be fully armed and resilient. I think if people become isolated in their old age and aren’t as familiar with certain technologies, they can be intimidated. So this is an area where we are trying to see if we can be more useful to them.

Family members can help educate their older loved ones by asking gentle but probing questions about what might be going on, webinar attendees noted, and encourage residents of senior communities to call an administrator if they are. encounter a suspicious email or believe their information may have been compromised. And, of course, they should stress the importance of protecting passwords and other sensitive information, not clicking on suspicious links, and only buying from reputable and well-known websites.

“If it looks like it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true,” Helm said. “I like to talk to older people about their confidence in the skeptical skills they’ve had throughout their lives. These are scams that are on a computer, but they are scams that we grew up with since we were kids – baits and switches, or acting like an impostor.

She has a broad view of threats, having served in the US Navy for 29 years. After her retirement as a captain, she taught military operations, including the integration of cyberspace operations into wargames.

“This was the opportunity to talk about how cybersecurity or cyber operations can affect operations that you traditionally didn’t think would have an impact,” she explained. Now, in her role at the Mass Cyber ​​Center, she knows there are few areas that cybersecurity has no impact – and that older Americans are often particularly at risk.

“Today,” she said, “we all know this has big consequences for our daily lives.”

Joseph Bednar can be contacted at [email protected]

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