Online Scams Against Seniors: 6 Ways to Protect Your Loved Ones

If someone you love is over 65 and online, they can be targeted by cybercriminals simply because of their age. People who are less internet-savvy make good victims regardless of their age, and senior citizens are prime targets because they’re more likely to have financial nest eggs.

But even internet-savvy seniors get scammed. Here’s what you need to know about today’s most effective scams, what to do about them, and how to better protect your loved ones this holiday season and beyond:

The most common and fastest growing online scams against people over 65

Financial scams are the most common form of elder abuse. Scams cost seniors in the U.S. at least $3 billion a year and probably much more. Victims are usually too embarrassed to report the crimes to authorities — it’s estimated that only one out of every 23 crimes against seniors (and as high as one out of every 44) are reported.

Top current scams include Social Security Administration (SSA) imposters and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) imposters. These scams are effective because they convince victims that there are urgent problems with their accounts that need immediate attention.

Technical support scams rely on the sense of urgency, too, as do most internet-related scams. Typically, they involve people claiming to be working with a company associated with Microsoft, Dell or another well-known tech company. They convince their victims that they have detected malware on the victim’s computer and it needs to be removed before irreparable damage can be done.

Lottery scams and romance scams are also common. The sense of urgency in these scams involves the victim’s desire for a better life.

What should seniors do if they’ve been scammed?

All of these scams are illegal. They need to be reported even if it seems there’s no hope of restitution. It’s trickier than reporting other types of crime, however, because of jurisdictional issues. The perpetrator can be anywhere, including in another country, and the investigations are conducted by cyber experts and not local detectives. You can’t just call the police like you can when your car is stolen.

Instead, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the government department that’s responsible for online crime. You should also file a claim for any attempted crime. The FTC does not resolve individual complaints. Rather, it collects data and shares it with local, state, federal, and foreign law enforcement, which in turn helps investigators track trends and build cases. You can decide how much information to share in the complaint.

If your scam was from an SSA imposter, however, file a report directly with the SSA using its new SSA Impostor Scam Reporting Form.

6 ways to help your loved ones from becoming victims

This holiday season, why not help your family members protect their online assets instead of trying to change their minds about politics? These six things will reduce the likelihood they’ll be cybercrime victims to begin with — a bonus gift for the holidays!

1. Update passwords: Follow the latest best practices. Start with their financial, email, and online shopping accounts. LastPass, Dashlane, or another password management system is the best way to go but if they prefer to use another approach, don’t fight it as long as it doesn’t include reusing passwords.

2. Set up a new email account (or two): Create a new, separate email account for financial accounts. Ask them not to use it for anything else. Creating a separate account for family and friends is a good idea, too. Keep the original account for all other communications, like newsletters, coupons, and other random communications. If they shop online, a fourth account for e-commerce is ideal. You can build a hint for the account type right into the email address to make it easy to identify. All of these precautions make it easier to distinguish scams. Take care to not include real names or other identifying information in the new email addresses and choose safe usernames with any online accounts, too.

3. Safeguard financial information: Remind them not to share sensitive information like their Social Security Number (SSN), bank account, or credit account numbers with anyone – even if the person they’re communicating with seems legitimate or threatens consequences for not providing the information. They should know that they are not legally required to share their SSN with anyone except the federal government. Legitimate entities, including the government, financial institutions, and healthcare organizations, send snail mail when sensitive information is involved.

4. Be more stealthy on social media: Review their settings to make them as private as possible and disable the ability for their profiles to show up in web search results. They should never accept connection requests from people they haven’t met personally and if they receive a request from someone who’s already a connection, it’s fake and could be part of a financial scam. Facebook Messenger scams from what appear to be trusted sources have been particularly effective.

5. Online habits: They know not to click on email attachments or links but the latest phishing scams are very sophisticated and it’s easy to be fooled. Emails can seem legitimate and spoofed websites can look identical to the real ones except for a tiny difference in the URL. Online ads can contain malware (even without the advertiser knowing it) and pop-up ads that warn that malware has been detected can actually download malware when clicked. Look at this blog post with your loved ones so they’ll be aware of the variety and breadth of cyber scams.

6. Disasters. Scammers come out in hordes after natural disasters. And they target everyone, not just seniors. They often pretend to be financial institutions, the IRS, or insurance companies asking to confirm account information to keep it secure, or charities asking for donations to help disaster victims. Seniors can be especially rattled after a disaster and especially generous, too.

The best frame of mind for anyone navigating the online world is to be skeptical and vigilant. It’s not being paranoid — it’s being realistic.

AARP has a good list of online safety measures and the National Council on Aging provides advice about avoiding the top 10 financial scams targeting seniors, both online and offline.

Be there to help

Getting a second opinion is a great idea in all kinds of situations, especially financial ones. Offering up your services to be a sounding board for your loved one whenever someone online asks for information or money could be the best holiday gift of all. It won’t take long before they get the hang of their new habits and you may learn about new scams to protect yourself as well.

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