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Cyber Attacks: What Makes Seniors Vulnerable?

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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 U.S. seniors (38 percent) surveyed say someone has tried to scam them online, and 28 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 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.

“Old technology is less secure,” noted Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “A family member did not want to give up a Windows XP machine even though Microsoft would no longer maintain it. She knew how to use her machine and didn’t want to face learning new things and dealing with new problems. It’s also important to keep a ‘clean’ computer,” Kaiser explained.

 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 don’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 seniors interviewed in the Home Instead survey uses social media. And about 12 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. 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 the National Cyber Security Alliance, make passwords at least 12 characters long. Avoid using personal information or common words. In addition, avoid using the same password for all accounts. 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 – “That man in Nigeria sounds desperate, and I could make some money!” Scammers and spammers may target older adults for several reasons. One is financial security and the other a trusting nature. Encourage loved ones not to give up their charitable nature. But do recommend they scrutinize the emails they receive. One popular phishing scam is a con artist posing as a Nigerian prince who wants someone to help him smuggle millions out of his country. Your older adult will get help and the promise of a cut of the proceeds by providing personal and financial information and paying a small fee. 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 cybersecurity knowledge.



Last revised: February 8, 2017

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