How Seniors Can Fight Back Against COVID-19 Scams

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By Zack Schuler

While COVID-19 is stressful and frightening for everyone, the pandemic has been especially hard on seniors. It’s not just that the virus poses a greater risk to older people – it’s also all the negative effects that stem from that fact, such as the necessity of even more stringent isolation, the difficulties of doing everyday tasks like running to the grocery store, and the constant dread associated with the potentially dire consequences of getting sick.

To make matters worse, COVID-19 has also exposed seniors to a different type of threat, and one that can reach them even if they’re quarantined at home. Cybercriminals are exploiting the fear created by the pandemic, and seniors are particularly tempting targets. This is because hackers assume seniors have money in savings and investment accounts (as well as other financial resources), and they’re viewed as soft targets because they aren’t digital natives who were exposed to all the cyber risks out there at an early age. 

But seniors don’t have to confirm cybercriminals’ preconceptions about them. By adopting a few fundamental cybersecurity principles, seniors can fend off cyberthreats just as effectively as anyone else. 

Why cybersecurity should be a priority for seniors

Between 2013 and 2018, cybercrimes committed against Americans over 60 years old increased by 400 percent. In 2019 alone, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 68,000 complaints of fraud and abuse from victims older than 60 who lost over $835 million. In fact, this crisis has become so widespread that the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act – which provides greater resources to seniors who’ve been scammed – was signed into law in 2017. 

While public policy is an important tool in the fight against cyberattacks that target seniors, it’s also crucial to equip them to protect themselves. This is where cybersecurity awareness training comes in – if seniors know what makes them vulnerable and how to spot potential cyberattacks, they won’t have to seek assistance from the government after being hacked. They’ll be capable of preventing attacks in the first place. 

Cybersecurity training doesn’t just have the potential to prevent devastating financial losses, the trauma of identity theft, and all the other destructive consequences of a cyberattack – it can also empower seniors to use the Internet without fear and anxiety. At a time when seniors need access to alerts and information about the pandemic online and the ability to communicate with their loved ones frequently and safely, cybersecurity has never been more vital. 

What seniors should be on their guard against

The COVID-19 lockdown has led to a surge in digital activity, so it’s no surprise that we’re witnessing an explosion of cybercrime. Not only is there an unprecedented number of people working remotely (many of whom have never done so before), but there’s also a wide range of pandemic-related attack vectors for cybercriminals to exploit. 

Congress has authorized trillions of dollars in economic stimulus amid the massive economic contraction caused by COVID-19, and this has created the conditions for fraud and abuse on an equally enormous scale. For example, scammers have been targeting older recipients of government stimulus by telling them they need to pay a fee before funds will be distributed (which is false in every case), asking for their Social Security or bank account numbers, and trying to gain access to other types of sensitive personal information. Seniors should only use the official IRS website and avoid any solicitation of information via a call, text, or email. 

Seniors are also especially likely to be targeted by medical scams – they’re in a high-risk category for COVID-19, so hackers are sending them junk information about vaccines, testing, Medicare, and so on. These are all reasons why seniors have to be extremely wary of emails or other digital communications regarding their finances or healthcare. 

How seniors can fight back

While financial and medical scams are two of the most common types of cyberfraud that target seniors, many other cyberattacks are emerging as the COVID-19 crisis drags on. Hackers are setting up fake charities (and even soliciting “donations” for public health agencies like the CDC), trying to get seniors to seize fraudulent investment “opportunities,” and sending out bogus public health alerts. 

Although it’s essential for seniors to understand the technical security basics for all their devices – keeping software updated to make sure they have critical security patches installed, using multi-factor authentication wherever possible, and using a VPN – the most important changes they can make are behavioral. Many of the COVID-19 scams that take advantage of seniors are forms of social engineering – demands for personal information or financial transfers are attempts to manipulate victims by playing on their fears and lack of awareness. 

Social engineering is the most common method of infiltration that hackers use across the board, but they assume it will be extra effective against seniors. This is why it’s imperative for seniors to prove them wrong by knowing what warning signs to look for: 

  1. Never trust an email or a text message that asks for sensitive information, only rely on reputable sources like the CDC and other public health agencies for information about COVID-19
  2. Never open a file in an email from an unfamiliar source (government agencies will never ask you to download information about emergency alerts)
  3. Be suspicious of any offer or prompt that asks you to act immediately.  

Tech adoption is increasing dramatically among seniors, and they’re just as capable as anyone else of observing the cybersecurity principles that will keep them safe from all the scams and other attacks out there. During this period of quarantine – when seniors are under extra pressure to remain isolated – cybersecurity awareness can help them remain connected with the world as safely as possible.

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