Here's how online scammers prey on older Americans, and what they should know to fight back

Key Points
  • Elderly individuals are more likely to be targeted by online financial fraud, and when they lose money, it's a higher amount than average, according to researchers. 
  • An Aspen Institute Tech Policy Hub study recently tackled the issue of how older adults respond to fraud, and some steps they can take to better protect themselves online. 
Getty | Johner Images

Cybercrimes against older adults have increased five-times since 2014, costing more than $650 million in losses per year, according to FBI and FTC statistics compiled for a new study on protecting senior citizens from cyberattacks. Older adults also lose large sums to online frauds like email compromise and wire fraud, according to the study.

And that's only for crimes that are self-reported. The real numbers are likely higher, said Ginny Fahs, a member of the Aspen Institute's Tech Policy Hub who led the study.

Fahs said she was drawn to the problem of online scams aimed at seniors after recognizing a significant gap: certain cybercrimes were disproportionately targeting older adults, but those same elderly internet users didn't know about the law enforcement solutions meant to help them, and many were falling through the cracks.

The new study suggests changes to how the FBI collects information and responds to online crimes targeting older adults, and provides suggestions for how those living on lucrative bank balances, pensions and retirement funds -- and their loved ones -- can better protect their assets from common online frauds.

More tech-savvy than expected

Fahs spent her early career in technology as a software engineer at Uber Eats and the project MovingForward, which works with venture capital funds to help them create policies that address harassment.

In these roles, she often engaged in some version of a process known as user-driven development, in which developers invite members of a community targeted by a certain application or software product to use it and find problems the developers might miss. This can be having kids test out an application for children before it's launched, or artists testing an art tool app that's under development.

So Fahs partnered with three local senior centers in San Francisco, and hosted a workshop with ten participants over the age of 70.

Researchers found the senior center participants were "for more tech-savvy" than they had expected, Fahs said. Most preferred using computers only in the senior center, and tablets and smart devices at home. Fahs said they asked seniors to imagine they were victims of an attempted online fraud, and urged them to consider who they might ask about the possible crime or report it to.

They discovered seniors were having a difficult time with the common FBI forms that require victims of scams to report what they've experienced online, she said. These forms, often associated with the FBI's internet crime center or IC3, are often the first step in reporting potential online exploitation. The forms would "time out" before the seniors were finished, and they didn't allow the participants to upload their conversations with possible scammers by screenshot, a method many of the participants preferred.

The forms didn't come with a confirmation screen, a reassurance several of the participants sought after submitting their reports that they had been received. The researchers have since made these recommendations to federal authorities to change on their websites.

But one of the biggest hurdles seniors reported facing was embarrassment: they didn't want to raise red flags about a potential incident for fear of bothering family members or sounding like they didn't understand the technology, Fahs said.

On the more extreme end, some participants kept quiet because they thought they might lose their independence in some way, Fahs said.

What older users can do

Following the study, Fahs said several recommendations have surfaced, both for older adults and their family members.

As a first step, she said it's important for seniors to understand that anyone can get phishing emails or targeted by fraud, and it's important to have people to whom they can reach out and fact check whether something their experiencing online could be a scam.

There are also numerous preventive measures that are particularly helpful to seniors, Fahs said.

One common sticking point for everyone, but especially seniors, is having a different password for every account -- but it's an important part of staying safe online, and especially keeping financial accounts safe. Fahs said it's far safer to have a written list of passwords saved in a drawer than to have the same password on every account.

Other online safety tips include:

  • Only entering sensitive information, like usernames, passwords and addresses, on "secure" websites. You can discern which sites are secure by the URL, which should include the preface "https" as opposed to unsecured "http."
  • Those who use shared computers should always remember to logout, and if possible, to wipe the history associated with the session.
  • VPNs: "Older adults were pretty aware of the importance of accessing your own private network," Fahs said. This includes using a virtual private network (VPN) when using public wireless services at a library or community center.
  • Reporting is also very important. Any consumer can report online scams, including unsuccessful attempted fraud, at the FBI's IC3 website. Credit, debit or bank account fraud should be immediately reported to your bank as well.

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