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Coronavirus Updated: 27 Apr 2020

How to protect the elderly from hackers in the age of COVID-19

Older people with limited knowledge about the digital world are especially vulnerable to Internet fraud. The frequency of these attacks has risen notably during COVID-19 social distancing, a time when hackers are taking advantage of the dramatic increase of user time online and the vulnerability of certain groups of people.

During the past few years, Internet use has become widespread across all population segments and used for all sorts of things, from entertainment and shopping to scientific research. But even during these times of exploding hyperconnectivity, not everyone is knowledgeable about the risks associated with an increasingly virtualized world. Tasks as commonplace as making a doctor’s appointment of shopping online can be difficult if one doesn’t have prior online experience.

In recent years, and even more notably in the past few days, there has been an upsurge in cyber fraud, including scams targeting older populations. There are several factors at play, including a lack of relevant knowledge, too much trust of the person or entity supposedly on the other side of the line, and feelings of loneliness and a heightened need for more contact with loved ones during these trying times.

According to Spain's Office of Internet Safety, during normal times social engineering attacks account for 93 percent of of security breaches. The Spanish National Cryptologic Center warns us that, with COVID-19, the number of phishing incidents in public agencies has increased by 70 percent. Cybercriminals use fraudulent emails, telephone calls, and instant messaging services to impersonate trusted people or organizations. For example, they may pretend to be the intended victim's bank or doctor’s office and they try to perpetuate identity  theft by asking for personal data that could give them access to contracted services or confidential information. These scammers are even providing false information about supposed new coronavirus cases near the victim's home, real time updated maps, and implausible discounts.

In the past few weeks there have also been more cases of customer support fraud, where criminals offer the intended victim assistance with a hypothetical computer problem. The FBI's ‘2019 Internet Crime Report’ points out that most victims of this type of fraud are over the age of 60.

Many older people don’t use passwords with some of their devices, either because they don’t know how to configure them or they are afraid they’ll forget  them. It is also quite common that they use weak passwords like their name, address, or something reasonably obvious about their environment, things hackers can easily crack after studying their victims’ digital footprint.

Tips for older people

We should therefore encourage those who are less online savvy to exercise caution and help them learn how to safely manage technology, warning them of potential online dangers.

  1. Never give credit or debit card information, your social security number, medical information or other personal data over the phone or on the Internet if you are not sure the requester can be trusted. If you have any doubt about the legitimacy of the requesting web page, be safe and investigate the source.
  2. Be wary of offers and promotions that seem too good to be true.
  3. Don’t click on links or download files from unknown senders of from WhatsApp chains. It is good practice to type the website address directly into the web browser, before clicking on a questionable link.
  4. Protect your devices with strong passwords that are different for each service. Password management tools are a convenient and reliable way to protect your passwords.

When we protect our loved ones, we are also protecting ourselves. Remember, especially in these trying times, you are your own best defense.

If you want to find out the best ways to protect yourself online during the COVID-19 crisis, read the following articles: