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Online scammers are going after your grandparents

Want to help your grandparents? Teach them about these scams.

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Published Sep 6, 2017   Updated May 22, 2021, 6:22 pm CDT

If your grandparents are online, it may be worth checking in on their privacy practices.

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In recent years, internet use among seniors has skyrocketed. Pew Research found that 67 percent of seniors now use the internet, and the percentage of seniors using social media climbed from just 2 percent in 2000 to a whopping 34 percent last year.

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This is typically hailed as good news, in part because research indicates that seniors who use social media have lower self-reported levels of loneliness and better general life satisfaction. However, seniors need to be especially cautious as the information they make available there is sought by criminals are looking to exploit them.

Impostor scams were deemed the fastest-growing type of scams in the U.S. last year, accounting for over 400,000 complaints, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Older Americans are especially vulnerable to them. Some, like the “grandparent scam,” are even tailored to this demographic. In the grandparent scam, fraudsters attempt to coerce money from seniors by convincing them they are a grandchild or intermediary who is in some kind of legal or medical trouble. This scam’s not new; it has been around since 2008, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Another impostor scam is the “tech support scam,” which may be becoming increasingly common. Microsoft, the FTC, and the AARP are working to spread awareness about these scams. The FTC recently announced it is ramping up its efforts to address this issue, but a recent court “victory” shows the challenges that can arise: Victims who lost a collective $120 million back in 2014 will only be able to recover 10 percent of what they lost, on average.

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Seniors (who are less likely to know about “catfishing”) are also common targets for romance scams, as the New York Times has reported.

Seniors are especially likely to be targeted for a variety of reasons. They’re commonly perceived as being polite and trusting, readily available to answer their landlines in their retirement, likely to have a nest egg, and less likely to be a good witness in court, according to the FBI. The FTC has reported that consumers ages 60 and over primarily complained about imposter scams in 2015 and 2016.  It’s also likely a large number of these instances go unreported altogether.

“In my experience, a lot of individuals who are scammed and recognize what’s happened are so embarrassed by it that they don’t often seek redress or tell family members,” says Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist and the medical director of mental health and memory services at Miami Jewish Health Systems.

The authors of a new study on scams, which estimates one in 18 older adults fall prey to financial fraud or abuse, also note that underreporting is likely.

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There have been reports of criminals who outright use social media sites as the medium for connecting with the seniors they aim to con. Better Business Bureau president Jack Frank recently noted the threat of impostors cloning Facebook accounts, fooling seniors into thinking the person who’s contacting them is someone they know. Facebook and genealogy sites also have the potential be used by scammers for insight on their targets to make their operation more sophisticated.

“Cybercriminals can use social media as gateways to access confidential information,” says Carlene Blackwood-Brown, a cybersecurity researcher in Levy CyLab and PhD candidate at Nova Southeastern University. Her work primarily focuses on seniors’ motivation to receive training on cybersecurity measures. She says it’s important to know what motivates seniors to acquire cybersecurity skills because they are home computer users and largely left on their own in this regard.

Facebook, which Agronin says is a favorite among seniors, has been setting default privacy settings so that only a user’s Facebook friends can see their posts since 2014. This was an important change—but it is not a failsafe. In its Help Center, Facebook lists several scams to watch out for and states, “Scams on Facebook happen when people create fake accounts or hack into existing Facebook accounts or Pages you’ve liked.” It also provides basic info about phishing scams, which attempt to fool users into handing over sensitive information or downloading malware.

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Being aware of and vigilant about privacy settings is also important for seniors. And let’s be honest—privacy settings can be confusing even to those of us who grew up online.

In an email to the Daily Dot, a Facebook spokesperson explained that the ways in which privacy matters are introduced to new users following signup “can vary” in method, including prompts for privacy checkups and interrupting a user making their initial posts to reiterate who will see what they publish on the social network.

Something Blackwood-Brown says she’d like to see from social media sites is for privacy information to be communicated with users—specifically seniors—in a way that’s more visible and user-friendly.

“In my research, I’ve found most privacy information is text-based and written in small font sizes,” she says. “Who has time to read all that, especially when you’re a senior citizen and if you have poor vision or fading memory?”

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*First Published: Sep 6, 2017, 6:00 am CDT