Help Protect the Seniors in Your Life from Cyber Fraud

As members of our family age, we think a lot about helping them plan for their well-being during retirement and beyond—and talking to them about financial challenges. But one topic not usually discussed: cyber fraud.

You may think they’re safe, either because they’re digitally savvy or they’re not even online very often. But they aren’t. Scammers target older people with the same sophisticated cyber tricks that they use on other groups—fake emails and malware—as well as clever schemes over the phone and through paper mail. They create urgent and plausible scenarios to extract money or personal information by invoking grandchildren, Social Security, Medicare, and even funeral planning—topics meant to short-circuit the defenses of the most skeptical seniors. (Test yourself with this quiz from Protect Seniors Online.)

In fact, reports of elder financial mistreatment have quadrupled since 2013, with an average loss of more than $34,000 across all adults older than 50, according to a report called “Suspicious Activity Reports on Elder Financial Exploitation: Issues and Trends” from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau .

That’s why Don Boian, Huntington’s Cybersecurity Outreach Director, says adult children and their parents should recognize the need for a team effort. “It’s not about ‘hand over the keys,’” he says. “It’s about a joint defense. Seeking out someone else’s help around these threats is actually a good thing. Quite frankly, we should all do that.”

Here is a three-step approach to putting some protection in place together.

Step 1: Have the Fraud Talk

Convincing aging family members and loved ones that they are at risk and that you should help can be an awkward conversation. Digital and financial details are private matters. Sharing with someone—especially a child—can feel like giving up autonomy. “As we get older, we don't want to admit that we don't know everything, that we don't have control,” says James Goepel, a cybersecurity law professor at Drexel University§. Here are some points to ease the discussion:

Be clear that it’s not about them. Scammers target every age and demographic—young people on social media, middle-aged home buyers, affluent seniors—with unique tactics. And seniors are heavily targeted: A 2018 FBI report on internet crime showed that people over 60 suffered the greatest losses—$649 million.

As Boian puts it, “I'm not saying, ‘You no longer have your mental faculties about you.’ I'm saying, ‘Bad guys are out to get you.’”#

There are many resources out there that can help make this point: AARP’s Scams and Fraud page is a great place to start, and even has a podcast with personal stories about fraud called The Perfect Scam.

Focus on planning and risk. “Most people have some form of insurance,” says Liz Loewy, COO at Eversafe, a monitoring service aimed at seniors and their families, “because they're worried about an emergency. Taking precautionary measures around fraud is about focusing the same attention on their life savings and credit.”††

Boian adds that it can help to remind them that they’ve worked hard for what they have. “You don't want one small mistake to cost you everything,” he says‡‡.

Personalize it. Instead of just listing scams and statistics, start by asking questions: What kinds of threats have they heard about? What are they worried about online? That makes the discussion around mitigating actions feel more relevant and personal.

Also take into account their online habits: Shopping? Email? Computer or smartphone? “Who you are, what you have, and what the risks are to those things is core to figuring out what your personal cybersecurity strategy should be,” says Goepel§§.

If necessary, bring in outside help. If family dynamics prevent this conversation, enlist someone else they trust, such as a friend, family attorney, financial advisor, or even an outside computer security service. “Sometimes bringing in third-party validation just helps reinforce that ‘This is real. This does happen to people,’” says GoepelŁ .

Step 2: Create Strategies Together

Once your parents agree to work toward protecting themselves, create a plan. Again, the key is to make it collaborative and relevant. Too much information can overwhelm and fatigue anyone.

Make it about habits, not threats. While it may be valuable to discuss a few common scams aimed at seniors, the reality is that the threats are always changing. Focus instead on behaviors. It’s easy to forget specific technical advice, but here are five habits worth adopting:

  • Be skeptical of all calls or emails that strike an urgent or threatening tone about finance, insurance, or anything else involving personal data. - Never give out personal or account information over the phone or by email. Always verify requests by contacting the company directly. Find a valid phone number on the company website, back of credit card, or other reliable source.
  • Be wary of links in emails or text messages, and never enter login or personal information after clicking one.
  • Make passwords complex, and don’t repeat them. (Read this for more password tips.)
  • Don’t click on pop-up ads.

Take a measured approach. You don’t have to take over your parents’ digital life to be helpful. For example, instead of getting full access to their financial accounts, just set up your phone to receive key alerts, like large credit card purchases or withdrawals. Download and go over their credit report with them twice a year. “It's not going to give me full transparency into your financial life,” says Loewy. “It's just an extra set of eyes that notices if something weird happens.”

Create checks and balances. Make sure your parents have someone—it doesn’t have to be you—that they can talk to if an email or call seems fishy. “They can be your voice of sanity that says, ‘Are you sure about this? Do you really want to send this person money?’” Boian saysұ.

Step 3: Perform Some Preventative IT

Offer to take on some of the more technical steps that can help keep your parents’ computer, smartphone, and home network protected. Or, if they are tech savvy, share this list with them (and point them to our Cyber Checklist for even more smart tips).

  • Set their computers, phones, and other connected devices to auto-update. This is the best way to make sure their tech always has the latest patches and protections.
  • Change the default passwords on all devices. Hackers can easily find factory logins for things like Wi-Fi routers. Use unique usernames and passwords for each device. You can write them down—just make sure your parents know never to share them.
  • Make sure their Wi-Fi network is secure. Set encryption to the most secure option and set a hard-to-guess password. Make sure firewalls are on. And if they often have visitors that need to get online, set up a guest network.
  • Consider installing a password manager. These can sometimes be tricky but remain the easiest way to use unique and secure passwords on websites. Find more on password managers here.
  • Set up an online backup system so that if a computer falls victim to a virus or ransomware, they won’t lose everything. These work in the background and don’t require any complicated hardware. You can even pay the annual fee as a gift.
  • Make sure smartphones automatically lock when not in use. A six-digit passcode, fingerprint, or face scan are all better than no lock. Read more about smartphone safety here.

Huntington has tools that can help mitigate some of these cyber risks, including alerts¥, which can let you know about unusual or suspicious account activity so you can catch fraud early, and the ability to lock your credit or debit card if it is lost or stolen.

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Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Suspicious Activity Reports on Elder Financial Exploitation: Issues and Trends, 4. February 2019.

Boian, Don. Interview by Mike Haney. May 31, 2019.

§ Goepel, James. Interview by Mike Haney. May 29, 2019.

Federal Bureau of Investigations. 2018 Internet Crime Report, 16. 2018.

# Boian, Don. Interview by Mike Haney. May 31, 2019.

†† Loewy, Liz. Interview by Mike Haney. May 29, 2019.

‡‡ Boian, Don. Interview by Mike Haney. May 31, 2019.

§§ Goepel, James. Interview by Mike Haney. May 29, 2019.

Ł Ibid

Loewy, Liz. Interview by Mike Haney. May 29, 2019.

ұ Boian, Don. Interview by Mike Haney. May 31, 2019.