Scammers step up efforts to target older Americans during pandemic

Laveta Brigham

Older adults have faced a barrage of online scams during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the upcoming holiday season and increased consumer spending likely to intensify the problem.  Older people have long been viewed as easy targets by malicious actors looking to make money and have increasingly become victims of scams […]

Older adults have faced a barrage of online scams during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the upcoming holiday season and increased consumer spending likely to intensify the problem. 

Older people have long been viewed as easy targets by malicious actors looking to make money and have increasingly become victims of scams aimed at everything from COVID-19 stimulus checks to other financial information over the course of 2020.  

“Senior citizens have always remained a primary target for cyber criminals and bad actors due to their inexperience with technology,” Kelvin Coleman, the executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, told The Hill.  

“The pandemic has exacerbated the target on seniors as so many essential services, such as health care and banking, were forced to become digital.” 

Older adults have also been put at higher risk of online malicious targeting due to the increased need to stay home and socially distant during the pandemic, increasing their time spent online.  

Coleman said that telehealth has become one way to target senior citizens, noting that “criminals can easily target seniors with phishing attacks to obtain private information like their Social Security number, login credentials and access to their financials” through the process of telehealth visits. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been among the agencies warning of increased scams against older citizens, including those involving faked messages from grandchildren asking for money due to illness or being stuck overseas and malicious actors posing as individuals asking for money to help during quarantine.  

The AARP has also tracked the increasing scams, with the group reporting that as of Nov. 12, it had logged more than 250,000 complaints related to COVID-19 and stimulus payments, with more than two thirds of the complaints related to fraud or identity theft.  

The company noted that nearly $183 million had been lost by consumers as a result of these scams, with the average victim losing around $320.  

Amy Nofziger, the director of victim support for the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, told The Hill that cyber criminals also see older adults as attractive targets due to their potential savings. 

“Anyone can be a target of fraud, but we know that older adults have more assets due to their hard work and saving for retirement, so of course scammers will go where the money is,” Nofziger said. 

Nofziger noted that the AARP has seen increasing efforts to target senior citizens through pet adoption and dating-related scams, with both aimed at obtaining money through legitimate wire transfers after tricking the targeted individual.  

“The scammers place fake ads with adorable animals for sale,” Nofziger said. “They request money in either wire transfers or peer to peer apps, like Cash App and Zelle. The unsuspecting victim doesn’t know that these types of payment are virtually untraceable and sends the cash and the pet nor the seller is ever heard of again.” 

Scams targeted at obtaining COVID-19 stimulus payments sent to older U.S. adults have also become an increasing concern. 

The IRS put out an alert earlier this year warning U.S. taxpayers to be on guard against malicious calls, texts, emails and social media posts that requested financial or other personal information. The agency cautioned that these scams could lead to identity theft or tax fraud and were targeting retirees in particular.  

Making matters worse, the holiday season typically intensifies online cyber targeting of all consumers, with older adults more at risk during this time.  

The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned earlier this month that targeting of consumers this year was expected to spike due to increased online shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Hackers, scammers and thieves will take advantage of these changes and the generosity of the public during the holidays to target online shoppers and those giving to charities,” CISA acting Director Brandon Wales said in a statement.  

Capitol Hill has not turned a blind eye to the increase in scams targeting older Americans during the pandemic.  

Both the House and Senate unanimously approved legislation earlier this month that would require the FTC to take steps to increase protection for seniors against these attacks.  

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE’s national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (D-Minn.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBipartisan, bicameral group unveils 8 billion coronavirus proposal The Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Mastercard – GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Biden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate MORE (R-Maine).  

“New schemes designed to defraud seniors appear almost daily. These aren’t simply a nuisance—these scams can wipe out a person’s entire life savings,” Klobuchar said in a statement at the time of the bill’s passage.

Collins, who is chair of the Senate Aging Committee, said in a separate statement that “raising awareness — particularly among older Americans who are more likely to be targeted — is key to protecting seniors’ hard-earned savings.” 

But as cyber criminals continue to target older adults headed into 2021, there are steps they can take to be more aware of pandemic-related scams and protect themselves.  

Coleman emphasized that basic cyber hygiene was key in thwarting these types of attacks, including through creating unique passwords for different accounts, keeping applications updated and “being wary” of clicking on links or downloading documents in emails from strangers.  

“Although some of these tips may sound basic, they’re paramount in protecting the average citizen from cyberattacks,” Coleman said. “If everyone works together and follows these basic guidelines, we’ll be able to make cyberspace a safer place for all.”

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