How can people who didn’t grow up with technology protect themselves against some of the most common types of online fraud?
The conventional thinking is that aging people tend to be at a higher risk of falling prey to scam artists than their children or grandchildren. Regardless of whether this is true or not, older people in the United States alone are swindled out of some US$3 billion a year via all manner of schemes, including internet-enabled theft, fraud, and exploitation. Moreover, any such statistics are likely to represent only a fraction of the actual damage, since many victims are too embarrassed to come forward and admit that they had been taken in by scammers.
What makes many older people vulnerable to online fraud, anyway? Among other things, fraudsters may exploit their trusting nature and, in some cases, deteriorating cognitive abilities caused by aging. Needless to say, the con artists may leverage the fact that the intended victims didn’t grow up with technology and never took even the most basic cybersecurity training. Partly with that in mind, this year’s series of articles marking Antimalware Day will conclude with a few tips that can help (not only) the elderly stay safe from common types of online scams.
Never assume that a stranger online is a trustworthy person. Indeed, you would be well-advised to always consider the possibility that the unexpected message may be a scam attempt. By extension, you should exercise caution even if the message comes (or seems to come) from someone you do know, and this applies equally to messages delivered via email, instant messaging apps or social media. Watch out for anything unusual about the message or sender; it could be a bad guy who has hijacked your friend’s online account and uses it to blast out malicious spam. If in doubt, throw it out!
A phishing attack, which is one of the most pervasive online cons, typically begins with an unsolicited email or social media message in which the fraudster impersonates a trusted entity and, using social engineering techniques, attempts to persuade you to hand over your sensitive data, such as credit card details or login credentials. Many con artists have diversified far beyond misspelled and purely text-based phishing messages, building entire lookalike websites and Facebook pages as lures for campaigns. You should never automatically assume that any material received out of the blue – no matter how official it looks – is authentic. Be wary of clicking on links or open attachments in emails even if the message appears to be from a known, trusted source.
Say no to ‘freebies’
Similarly, fraudsters may also send you an email to congratulate you on your ‘win’ in a lottery or sweepstake you never entered in the first place. Nevertheless, in order for your ‘prize’ to be released, they will ask for your personal details and/or request a payment upfront in a kind of ‘advance-fee scam’. Typically, the missive will instill a sense of urgency, asking you to respond promptly or risk missing out. Remember that legitimate lotteries never require winners to pay fees to collect their winnings.
Never wire money to strangers
Confidence/romance fraud, where the victim is tricked into sending money or personal information to the false admirer, was the second costliest type of online fraud to hit people of all ages in 2018, causing aggregate losses worth US$362 million. Worse, the FBI’s latest Internet Crime Report also found that almost one-third of romance scam victims are estimated to have been used as money mules, which made them unsuspecting crime accomplices. Romance scams have for years been high on the list of the most common scams against seniors, which may not be surprising in the sense that loneliness is one of the most common issues many seniors face.
In tech support fraud, con artists will often seek to convince you that your computer has been compromised by malware and that you need to provide them with remote access to your device so they can fix the issue. Of course, the pretext is fake, but the ensuing damage – the loss of personal information and money – is very real. You should never provide a stranger with remote access to your computer, even if they claim to represent a reputable vendor.
The last tip is mainly intended for the younger of us: Let’s keep an open dialogue with our parents and grandparents and explain the basic cybersecurity practices to them in a relatable manner. On top of acquiring a better understanding of the dangers of the online world, many of them will feel more engaged and less lonely, which may ultimately help them stay safer online.