Protecting Seniors Online
It's important to consider the safety of our older friends and family members online. They're often (but not always!) not as technically inclined, and may be susceptible to exploitation.
In this guide, you'll learn about common issues and scams seniors may encounter on the web. We will discuss key strategies to keep them safe without restricting their freedom.
I've also included some printable literature you can provide for their reference.
Senior Scams & Prevention
Scammers are a tremendous threat to seniors. Unfortunately, they can be found everywhere, from online marketplaces to social media. Here are some of the most common types of online scams seniors, and really anyone, may encounter.
- Common Senior Scams
- Dating Scams
- Isolated seniors may feel lonely and reach out to people on the net for companionship.
- Most commonly occurs on dating websites and apps.
- After the scammer gains rapport, they will try to exploit the person for money or personal information.
- These relationships escalate rapidly and may continue for months or years
- Phishing (Fraudulent Information Collection)
- An email pretending to come from an organization the senior uses arrives telling them to update their password, or verify their identity.
- The link in the email takes them to an unofficial website, pretending to be the real one.
- The form asks them for their passwords, social security number, driver's license number, or other sensitive information. It's sent directly to the scammers.
- Remote Support Scams
- Services pretending to be "remote support" convince the senior to grant them control of their computer. Then, they may make large purchases or monetary transfers from their bank accounts.
- This may appear as an email, an online advertisement, or a web-paged disguised as a virus alert.
- Impersonating State Organizations
- Scammers can pretend to be the police, the IRS, or the court, and demand the senior pay them legal fines or unpaid taxes.
- Scammers will often threaten arrest or other consequences if the bogus fee isn't paid.
- Sometimes this may also be phishing.
- Online Marketplace Scams
- This can happen if the senior is buying or selling anything in an online marketplace.
- The scammer may convince the person to send money in return for a fake product, or send them a product in return for no money.
- Refund Scams, Bounced Checks, Reversed Transactions
- The scammer claims they owe the senior a refund. They send the senior money well over the amount of the refund owed. Finally, they demand the senior return the difference.
- The money sent to the senior is entirely fabricated, unverified, pending, or will be reversed by the bank. The senior loses the difference.
- Fake Family Emergency
- The scammer impersonates a child, grandchild, or friend. They may make this up or gain the information from socials. The scammer calls or messages the senior saying they need money transferred immediately to pay for court fees, rent, bail out of jail, etc. The scammer pockets the money after it's been transferred.
- Free Product Winner or Survey Reward
- Emails claiming to be from Walmart or other stores will say the recipient has won a free prize, or will get a free product if they complete a survey.
- While some real surveys do provide prizes for completion, most of these are fake.
- They say you won a prize, but you have to pay shipping to get it. Of course, you never get the product.
- They will steal your credit card info, address, and possibly other sensitive information.
- Dating Scams
The best way to protect seniors from the above scams is to educate them on the scams. An appropriate time to bring up scam prevention might be when you're reviewing important documents and finances, or answering tech questions.
Educate them about the scams you think are most relevant to them. If they're not dating or are already in a relationship, maybe don't worry about the romance scams. Don't use overly technical language, make demands, or make the conversation stressful. You're simply giving them honest advice or suggestions for their benefit.
Inform the senior that if they ever think they've been scammed, it's okay to tell you or a trusted individual about it. These things happen to the best of us and it's nothing to be embarrassed about it. After all, scammers make full-time careers out of manipulating people. This is probably the most important thing to tell them. It's impossible to resolve the problem if the senior won't admit something happened.
It's perfectly okay to make friends online at any age, however, they should be informed of risks and warning signs of romance scammers.
- Red Flags - Romance/Companion Scammers
- If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
- Rapidly escalating relationship (saying I love you after a week, wanting to move in immediately, being incredibly over-enthusiastic about the relationship)
- Lives out of the country
- Won't engage in FaceTime/Video calls
- Has a British accent and/or uses phrases common to British English
- Eg, "kindly send me your social security number"
- This is a major generalization. If you live in the UK, this probably doesn't apply. However, most scammers are based out of Asia or Africa, and use British English rather than American English. If you're in the USA, you'll probably pick up on this fast.
- Overly attractive profile picture, fake profile picture - you can reverse image search if needed
Provide Assistance With Finances
Regularly talk to them and ensure their finances are in order. Keep in the loop and have them contact you if anything questionable happens and before making large monetary transfers.
If possible, the primary checking account used by the senior should be shared with a trusted adult child or relative. Ideally, the designated principal executor of the person's will or medical power of attorney. That way, the account can be monitored for suspicious activity. This will also help if the senior is in a medical emergency and you need to pay their bills, medical expenses, etc. without power of attorney.
Protecting Personal Data
Another common way seniors are exploited is by stealing their personal information, passwords, and identity theft.
The easiest scam to fall for is phishing, which I briefly discussed above. It's when a nefarious website pretending to be something official asks you to enter sensitive personal information, and sends it right to the scammer.
The best way to prevent phishing is to use safe email services. Examples include Gmail and Outlook.com. These services have built in safe-link features that detect phishing links and prevent users from accidentally visiting these pages.
If your senior friend is still using a less well-known or older email provider, such as an email address they got from their ISP or AOL 20 years ago, it's time for a change. Have them register a free Gmail account or Microsoft account and use these email services instead.
Beyond that, you can educate them on safely providing online information.
- Teach them how to check if the website they're on is the real website, by looking at the address bar
- Be wary of typos in names, other misspellings, or unsecured connections
- Tell them not to open important links (financial accounts, etc) from email or other messaging services. Rather, they should visit the official website directly. Bookmark the real website for them if you can.
- Tell them to be skeptical of any website that asks for their personal information, like SSN, birthday, address, banking info, etc.
Protecting Against Viruses
Viruses may infect computers and steal passwords, banking information, and any other info stored on the device. This can lead to financial problems and identity theft.
If the senior is determined to use a traditional computer, they should have antivirus software installed.
Make sure they know what antivirus software they're using, so they don't accidentally install other security programs, or mistake fake virus alerts for real ones.
If using a computer, consider installing ad-blocking browser extensions such as uBlock Origin. This will prevent them from accidentally clicking nefarious advertisements and make their overall experience on the web cleaner.
Ideally, encourage them to use something like an iPad or iPhone to do their computing. These devices are easier to use and far less prone to viruses than a PC.
Android devices often have more bells and whistles than iPhones or iPads, and are offered at cheaper prices. However, these devices are also more prone to viruses and other issues. Trust me, budget permitting, go with Apple on this.
If they really prefer the bigger screens and keyboards of a laptop or desktop, have them consider the larger iPad Pro models with the keyboard attachment.
Teach them how to use password managers, like the ones built into Chrome and Safari. Make sure they understand the importance of generating secure passwords, and not re-using passwords across different accounts.
Encourage them to splurge for a cloud backup service. This will keep their contacts, photos, and account information safe across all devices in the event they accidentally lose or break something. If they're on iPhone, use iCloud. If Android, use Google Drive. If a Windows PC, use Microsoft 365 with OneDrive.
Additional Tools and Resources
- Key Takeaways
- Explain the major scams they might be susceptible to. Tell them to let you know if they think they've been scammed.
- Make sure they're using a safe email provider.
- If possible, have them share their primary checking account with you or a trusted relative.
- For you to access and monitor, and in the event they have a medical emergency.
- Encourage use of secure and relatively easy-to-use devices such as iPads and iPhones over Android devices or full-blown PCs.
- Encourage use of a password manager and cloud backups.
I have written several other guides related to staying safe online for your reference.