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Cyber Attacks: What Makes Seniors Vulnerable? (CA)

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Returning from a trip to Italy, a retired couple was alarmed to find their telephone answering service full of messages from frantic friends: “Are you OK? Please call right away. What can we do to help?”

The stunned pair soon learned that scammers had infiltrated their computer system and gained control of their email list. Posing as the couple, these criminals had sent out desperate email messages to family and friends telling them they were in trouble and needed money. Even though a number of people reached out, no one took the bait. Fortunately, all were suspicious enough not to take action and send the scammers any money.

However, the damage to the couple’s computer system had already been done. So severe was the cyber attack it was necessary for the retirees to hire a professional company to clean up the mess.

More than a third of Canadian seniors (39 percent) surveyed say someone has tried to scam them online, and 29 percent have downloaded a computer virus, according to research conducted by Home Instead, Inc., franchisor of the Home Instead® network.

Such cyber attacks can happen to anyone. However, older adults can be particularly vulnerable for the following reasons, according to Public Safety Canada, the National Cyber Security Alliance, the Better Business Bureau and Home Instead:

Complexity of computers and devices – “It’s so complicated and confusing.” With an ever- evolving cyber world, it can be a challenge to stay informed about the many tools and practices needed to stay safe online. You can help older adults ensure that the software and/or the security systems on their computers and electronic devices are up-to-date.

“While seniors can be just as susceptible to online fraud as the rest of the population, they can be particularly vulnerable if they’re unfamiliar with the technology or software that’s installed in their devices,” said Mark Matz, Director of Policy and Issues Management with the National Cyber Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada. “If your senior loved one needs a new computer or a significant software update, be sure to work closely with them to help them understand the changes, so they feel comfortable should a problem arise.”

According to Home Instead research (PDF), approximately one in five seniors goes without anti-virus software. Anti-virus and malware scans as well as systems sweeps help ensure that computers and all the important information they process are well-protected. If you or your older adult doesn’t want to deal with that, engage the services of a trusted computer professional to keep your senior’s computer and systems up-to-date and well-maintained.

Oversharing – “Everyone should know about my wonderful granddaughter.” The majority of the Canadian seniors interviewed in the Home Instead survey use social media. And about 11 percent of those users reported having negative social media experiences, including being asked for money and having to block someone. It’s OK for seniors to brag about their family on Facebook. But caution them about sharing too many details, such as where their granddaughter goes to school. That could be dangerous for the senior and his or her family. Also, you can make sure that your senior has their privacy settings set up in a way that prevents strangers from viewing the details of their profile. Spammers often use personal information to pose as loved ones reaching out for money and help.

Weak passwords – “I’ve kept my password simple. It’s my street address!” Passwords are a window into nearly every action on the computer from accessing the bank account to a Facebook page and email account. According to the National Cyber Security Alliance, weak passwords are one of the easiest ways for criminals to break through security. Encourage older adults to use a mix of letters, numbers and symbols in their passwords and, according to Public Safety Canada, ensure passwords are at least 8-12 characters long. Avoid the use of personal information or common words. In addition, avoid using the same password for all accounts, and change your passwords regularly. You can help seniors create a “cheat sheet” for logging and storing passwords and keep that in a safe and secure place.

A trusting nature – “My credit card company emailed me saying my payment didn’t go through – I better pay it again!” Scammers and spammers may target older adults for several reasons. One is financial security and the other a trusting nature. According to Public Safety Canada, older adults are particularly vulnerable to phishing scams, often because they aren’t familiar with how financial institutions or large corporations typically contact their customers. Scam emails often come with a sense of urgency. They’re told: “You must do this right now or else . . . !” Encourage older adults to avoid reacting immediately to emails calling for swift action.

Practicing good online habits can help lessen your senior’s chances of being targeted. Learn more at And take the “Quiz: Can You Spot an Online Scam? to test your own cyber security knowledge.

Last revised: February 8, 2017

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