How to spot a scam online

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Attractive middle-aged woman holding tablet looking out the window. On-line recreational resources e services for older citizen, e-health remote counselling, e-commerce satisfied mature user concept
Don't let online scammers prey on you. (Photo: Getty)

Imagine finally paying your mortgage off at age 65, only to find out that another loan was recently acquired in your name—and now creditors are demanding payment from you. Or logging into your bank account at age 70 to discover that your entire retirement savings has been depleted overnight.

The sad truth is that many senior citizens are sitting ducks for online fraud and identity theft—and that's why it's so crucial to be able to tell when someone is scamming you online. Americans over 60 lost a jaw-dropping $650 million to online fraud in 2018. Cyber crimes directed toward elders have increased by 400 percent in the last handful of years, according to the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub. Seniors are targeted because they tend to be more trusting and considerate, often own assets like a home or a car, and are likely to have good credit, according to the FBI.

Scammers come from all angles—via email, text, social media, and even by phone. “Oftentimes [seniors are] very amenable to having a phone conversation with someone who sounds like they're from a social service agency or the Internal Revenue Service,” says cybersecurity expert Adam Levin, founder of Cyberscout and author of ‘Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves.’

It’s important to remember that the IRS will never call you on the phone. Beyond that, we’ve compiled a list of five common online scams, plus the software tools that will keep your most sensitive information under wraps.

Online scam No. 1: COVID-19-related fraud

Happy senior man uses digital tablet while in his home
Online scammers try to take advantage of scary situations. (Photo: Getty)

Online scammers prey on fear and uncertainty, says Levin, so it’s no surprise that COVID-19 related fraud has been skyrocketing—and the most vulnerable group, people age 62 and older, are in the crosshairs, says the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Scammers might pose as contact tracers, but ask for inappropriate things like payment or your social security number, or encourage you to click on phishing links or download malware-laced files, the FTC warns. They’ll also send malicious links via email while posing as the CDC or WHO or serve ads for COVID-19 home test kits that never actually arrive after you purchase them online.

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Online scam No. 2: Medical identity theft

Senior woman visiting her doctor
Online scammers may make medical claims on your behalf.

We all know how pricey healthcare can be—and so do online scammers. That’s why they look to use your name and private personal information to visit doctors, have procedures done, get prescriptions filled, and even file claims with your health insurance provider, says the FTC.

“A lot of people, because of medical identity theft, have had enormous financial issues and credit issues because someone stole their identity and used it for medical treatments and appointments,” Levin told Yahoo Life. In the worst case scenario, victims of medical identity theft reach their benefits limit and run out of coverage or are on the hook for hefty medical bills. The FTC warns to read your Explanation of Benefits closely to catch any claims or debt that aren’t yours, so you can request corrections as quickly as possible.

Now that we’re all relying so heavily on tele-health appointments, online medical records are more vulnerable than ever. Norton Security Online helps to keep your sensitive information protected and thwart identity thieves whether you’re accessing your medical files, having a video appointment, or just blissfully surfing the web.

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Online scam No. 3: Your "grandchild" asks for money over the phone

Serious concerned old grandpa talking on mobile phone, calling for emergency, ambulance. Senior 80s man speaking on cellphone, sitting on couch, at home, contact family on distance
Scammers may try to pretend to be your grandchildren. (Photo: Getty)

The panicked phone call sounds so authentic. “Grandma, I have COVID-19 and I’m in the hospital. Please wire me money.” But it’s not actually your grandchild—it’s a stranger tugging at your heartstrings in an attempt to reach your purse strings. The grandparent scam has been around for ages but in the midst of a pandemic, people are way more likely to fall for a hoax that involves a family member in crisis, according to the FTC.

Levin says the phone scammer will use either a boy’s or a girl’s voice and test their luck. “They won't say their name when they call. They'll just say, ‘Grandma,’ and the grandparents will instinctively say grandchild’s name,” he added. “Now the scammer knows the name they can use.”

Scary, huh? The FTC warns to be wary of anyone calling and asking you to wire money in an emergency. Resist the urge to act immediately, no matter how compelling the so-called crisis. Verify your grandchild’s identity by asking questions a stranger couldn’t possibly know. And whatever you do, don’t send cash, gift cards, or money transfers. You can report scam phone calls to the FTC Complaint Assistant.

Online scam No. 4: "Tech support” reaches out to you unsolicited

Shot of call center operators working in the office. Call center agent working with his colleagues in modern office. Smiling handsome businessman working in call center.
Real tech support never reaches out to you unsolicited. (Photo: Getty)

Computers that are slow as molasses and smartphones that freeze and crash have become common irritations of everyday life. We all need tech support from time to time, and scammers capitalize on the frustration and desperation of it all.

“Technology scams have been moving around over the years, but in particular they've increased because so many people are working from home,” Levin told Yahoo Life. “A lot of seniors have fallen for what's called the technology scam. That's where you get a call for someone representing themselves to be from Apple or Microsoft saying that they've noticed that there's a particular problem with your computer. If you could just go to this particular site and click on this link, they'll get into your computer.”

From there, Levin says tech support scammers can hijack your computer and steal all your sensitive information or monitor your activity using keystroke logging. They might even ask for your credit card information to bill you for their “services.”

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Online scam No. 5: Strangers befriend you online

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Never click on links sent by people you don't know personally. (Photo: Getty)

It’s tempting to connect with interesting strangers on the internet, but senior citizens are a prime target for catphishers. “Scammers can see by their social media posts that they're lonely,” says Levin. He says catphishers scan elder Americans’ social media profiles for information about their interests, too.

“It may be something as simple as, they love pets,” Levin says. “So you send them pictures of pets except buried in the code of that picture is malware. So you click on the picture, and now you could have put ransomware on their computer, or you could have put a keystroke logger on the computer.” Once they’re in, scammers can use your identity “to get medical benefits, open accounts, drain bank accounts, you name it,” says Levin.

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