The holidays should be a time of giving and good cheer, not of worry and woe. But for an increasing number of us, the joys of spending the season with our family and close friends are eclipsed by a nefarious act – online fraud. Last year, fraud attempts increased by 22% during the holiday season, with 43% of online identity theft occurring during the November-December shopping season. Despite increased public awareness and policing task forces, fraud continues to cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year.
Staying Safe Online
To protect yourself from online threats, it is vital that you create strong passwords, install the latest malware and virus protection software, ignore emails from senders you don’t know and only access trusted websites. For added protection, you can sign up to receive email or text “transaction alerts” from your bank to keep track of your online purchases. These tips will help ensure that your personal and financial information remains secure and out of reach from cybercriminals.
Targeting the Vulnerable
If you follow these simple steps, you can dramatically reduce your chances of falling victim to online threats. However, scammers have become more sophisticated with their attacks, and are increasingly turning their attention to the most vulnerable among us – the elderly. Earlier this month, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) released a new report indicating that elders face an increased threat to their financial security by both domestic and foreign actors. During the 6 month study period, documented incidents of elder financial exploitation increased dramatically from 2,000 cases per month in 2013 to nearly 7,500 cases per month in August 2019. The report further revealed that the average financial loss reported by elderly victims rose during the same period of time.
In the United States, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) reported that older Americans who were exploited by fraudsters suffered an average loss of $34,200 in 2018. The CFPB called the problem “widespread and damaging,” and when it analyzed government reports of suspicious online financial activity, it discovered that they involved more than $6 billion in attempted and actual losses between 2013 and 2017.
Common Online Scams
The majority of elderly victims were targeted by scams in which they were requested to send money overseas. Three major scam categories were identified in FinCEN’s report:
1) Romance Scams: Scammers successfully establish a romantic relationship with their victims and then request money for nonexistent hardships. Fraudsters may also request money to visit the victim, and once they receive the funds, they often sever communication.
2) Emergency or Person-in-need Scams: Fraudsters prey on their victims’ emotional vulnerability by claiming to be a loved one in need of money to help with an emergency.
3) Prize or Lottery Scams: Scammers coerce their victims into sending money under the guise of an import tax or fee in order to receive their prize or lottery winnings.
What You Can Do
A family member who has been targeted by online criminals may be too emotionally invested in the scammer’s web of deceit to recognize that they are being financially taken advantage of. For this reason, you can play a vital role in protecting your loved one from harm. First, look for warning signs that they may be a victim of an online scam. Pay close attention to any lifestyle changes that are out of the ordinary. For example, if your outgoing grandparent suddenly becomes withdrawn, that’s a sign something could be wrong. Also, look for any suspicious financial activity. If you can, periodically review your loved one’s financial statements and ask about any unusual transactions.
If your family member is the victim of an online scam, you should ensure that they terminate all contact with the scammer. You will want to block the scammer’s email address and “unfriend” them from any social media sites. In some cases, changing your family member’s email address and phone number may be necessary if the scammer continues to harass your loved one.
It is also vital that you uncover what personal information has been revealed to the fraudster and seek advice from the local police. If your family member provided the scammer with financial information or they were able to steal funds from their bank account, you should immediately contact your family member’s financial institutions. Depending on the situation, the bank will help you determine the best course of action.
The Importance of Emotional Support
Most importantly, always remember to provide your loved one with emotional support. Victims are often embarrassed or afraid to tell their family when they have a problem. This is particularly relevant for the elderly, who may fear losing their independence or being thought of as incapable or vulnerable. It is vital that you remain patient and supportive and never ridicule your family member. How family, friends and organizations treat the victim directly influences their mental health and how quickly they will emotionally recover from the ordeal.