Cyber Attacks: What Makes Me Vulnerable?

Returning from a trip to Italy, a retired couple was alarmed to find their telephone answering service full of messages from frantic friends: “Are you OK? Please call right away. What can we do to help?”

The stunned pair soon learned that scammers had infiltrated their computer system and gained control of their email list. Posing as the couple, these criminals had sent out desperate email messages to family and friends telling them they were in trouble and needed money. Even though a number of people reached out, no one took the bait. Fortunately, all were suspicious enough not to take action and did not send the scammers any money.

However, the damage to the couple’s computer system had already been done. The retirees needed to hire a professional company to clean up the mess.

More than a third of U.S. seniors (38 percent) surveyed say someone has tried to scam them online, and 28 percent have downloaded a computer virus, according to research conducted by Home Instead, Inc., franchisor of the Home Instead Senior Care® network.

Such cyber attacks can happen to anyone. However, older adults could be particularly vulnerable for the following reasons, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance, the Better Business Bureau and Home Instead Senior Care:

Complexity of computers and devices – “It’s so complicated and confusing.” With an ever-evolving cyber world, it can be a challenge to stay informed about the many tools and practices needed to stay safe online. Make sure the software and/or the security systems on your computer and electronic devices are up-to-date.

“Old technology is less secure,” noted Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “A family member did not want to give up a Windows XP machine even though Microsoft would no longer maintain it. She knew how to use her machine and didn’t want to face learning new things and dealing with new problems. It’s important to keep an updated and ‘clean’ computer,” Kaiser explained.

According to the Home Instead research, approximately one in five seniors goes without anti-virus software (PDF). Anti-virus and malware scans as well as systems sweeps help ensure that computers and all the important information they process are well-protected. If you don’t want to deal with that, ask for help from a trusted family member or computer professional to keep your computer and systems up-to-date and well-maintained.

Oversharing – “Everyone should know about my wonderful granddaughter.” The majority of seniors interviewed in the Home Instead survey use social media. And about 12 percent of those users reported having negative social media experiences, including being asked for money and having to block someone. It’s OK to brag about your family on Facebook. But be careful about sharing too many details, such as where your granddaughter goes to school. That could be dangerous for you and your grandchild. Scammers and spammers often use personal information to pose as your loved ones reaching out for money and help.

Weak passwords – “I’ve kept my password simple. It’s my street address!” Passwords are a window into nearly every action on the computer from accessing your bank account to your Facebook page and email account. According to the National Cyber Security Alliance, weak passwords are one of the easiest ways for criminals to break through security. It’s best to use a mix of letters, numbers and symbols in your password and, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance, make passwords at least 12 characters long. Avoid using personal information or common words. And try to change your password frequently. In addition, avoid using the same password for all accounts. Two-step authentication of accounts provides another layer of protection. Go to to learn more.

A trusting nature – “That man in Nigeria sounds desperate, and I could make some money!” Scammers and spammers may target older adults for several reasons. One is financial security and the other a trusting nature. Don’t give up your charitable nature. But do scrutinize the emails you receive. One popular phishing scam is a con artist posing as a Nigerian prince who wants you to help him smuggle millions out of his country. You’ll help and get a cut of the proceeds by providing your personal and financial information and paying a small fee. Scam emails often come with a sense of urgency. You’re told: “You must do this right now or else…!” Don’t immediately react to any emails that demand swift action.

Practicing good online habits can help lessen your chances of being targeted. Learn the 10 Best Cybersecurity Practices for Older Adults. And take the “Quiz: Can You Spot an Online Scam?

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