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How to Protect Seniors From Online Scams

Mar 29, 2019 3 min read Marilen Cawad


Key Takeaways

  • Cognitive decline increases seniors' risk of becoming targets of fraud.
  • Tell them about known online scams and red flags to watch for.
  • Take over their financial accounts when they can no longer manage them.


People from all age groups are potential victims of financial fraud, but seniors are particularly vulnerable. They have spent years saving for retirement, their accounts can be accessed online, and many of them are not quite tech savvy.

Seniors are also more likely to experience cognitive decline and social isolation, which increases their risk of becoming targets of fraud and abuse. According to the Alzheimer's Association Opens in new window, an estimated 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, a number that is projected to rise to nearly 14 million by 2050.

Some widely used modes of preying on seniors include the “sweetheart scam," which begins with the fraudster making a connection with the senior using a dating website, and the “grandparent scam," in which the swindler pretends to be a grandchild in need of fast cash. Another common con is an email phishing approach, in which a communication that appears to come from a legitimate financial institution asks the senior to, say, update their personal banking information.

Here are some ways you can help your parents, grandparents, or older relatives who may be vulnerable to online financial fraud.


  1. 1. Talk to them about the risks

    Sit down with older family members and have an honest talk about the risks that exist in the vast online universe. If they seem uncomfortable, try to assure them you are looking out for their best interests.

    Tell them the details of the known scams and encourage them to always double check incoming messages or communications. For example, if they get a Facebook message from a grandchild seeking cash, they shouldn't be so quick to send money, even if the message seems to come from the grandchild's account. Before doing anything, call the grandchild and verify the message is legitimate.

    Offering them specific tech tips can also help. For example, many older email users may not utilize .zip, .exe, and .dmg files. Unless they're expecting these file types, tell your older relatives not to open emails with these attachments, even if the sender appears to be someone they trust. These types of files are used by online thieves who can hijack the computer once the file is open; this allows them to track keystrokes and potentially lift sensitive financial information from computer files.

  2. 2. Keep their computers up to date

    Seniors are often targeted by scammers who assume they are more likely to let their security protection lapse. Antivirus software was likely installed on the computer when it was purchased, but it could be out of date. Make sure you or your older relatives are consistently updating their protective software. If you can't be there to help them, you may find a company that can send a technician to their home to ensure their antivirus software is active and updated.


  3. 3. Show them how to keep passwords safe

    Many older computer users keep their passwords in a recipe box, inside their address book, or even on a notepad in the office. Anything could happen to that piece of paper, including it getting into the wrong hands.

    Teach them there are better ways to store passwords. For example, there are free apps that can help you store and organize your passwords. With endless passwords to keep track of, along with the necessity of using unique passwords for each account, these tools can help your older relatives store all their passwords in one database. The databases are usually encrypted and locked with one master password, which means keeping up with multiple passwords (or storing them on index cards) can be a thing of the past.


  4. 4. Take control when needed

    If your older relatives, particularly your parents, are suffering from mild to severe cognitive decline, you may need to take firmer control of their finances, including their online banking activity.

    If they are still mostly in control of their financial lives, you may need to convince them it is best for you to have their online financial information, just in case anything goes wrong. Once you have this information, you can routinely monitor their bank and investment accounts and take quick action if you notice suspicious activity.


What you can do next

Talk to your older relatives about the risks of doing business online and show them how they can protect themselves from scammers. If they are already suffering from cognitive decline, you may need to step in and get access to their online accounts.


Marilen Cawad is the Director of Digital Content Strategy at Prudential.


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