Senior sentinels – protecting our vulnerable loved ones from cyber scams

April 23, 2024 | Portfolio Advisor - Spring 2024


Senior sentinels – protecting our vulnerable loved ones from cyber scams

June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. This annual occurrence provides an important opportunity to consider the people in our lives who may be vulnerable to abuse like cyber scams, and what we can do to assist them.

Cybercrimes against older Canadians have been steadily rising over the last decade, as cybercriminals have used ever-increasingly sophisticated methods to track down, target and then victimize vulnerable members of our society. And the numbers aren’t small: according to the U.S.’s Internet Crime Complaint Centre (IC3), 88,000 people age 60 or older collectively lost US$3.1B to fraudsters in 2022—an 84% increase over the previous year.

RBC cybersecurity experts provide some of the key reasons why older Canadians are targets of cybercriminals:

  • Availability: Older seniors may be less mobile, less socially active, and therefore more available to read all their emails, answer the phone and respond to texts from strangers. This makes it easier for scammers to establish contact.
  • Loneliness: Older seniors who live alone are especially vulnerable to scammers who prey on their isolation. A friendly email or voice on the phone can gain their trust.
  • Wealth: Retired seniors are more likely than younger Canadians to have a nest egg of savings that’s relatively easy to access and steal.
  • Online presence with limited confidence: More and more seniors have a smartphone and browse the Internet. According to Pew Research Center, 61% of seniors own a smartphone and 75% surf the Internet.1 But, most aren’t tech-savvy — only 26 per cent of senior Internet users feel “very confident” when using computers and smartphones.2

The Fake Four – four scams to watch out for

One of the most important ways to successfully combat cybercrime, whether for seniors or anyone else, is to be aware of how cybercriminals ply their nefarious trade. Awareness is key. So, if you or someone you love is vulnerable and needs help to avoid becoming a victim of cybercrime, here are four key scams to be on the watch for according to RBC cybersecurity experts:

1. Phishing: This is the most common online scam and is designed to trick the cybercriminals’ targets into sharing personal and/or financial information for the purpose of financial fraud or identity theft.

The scam: The cybercriminals send an email that appears to be from a legitimate source—the government, a bank, a major corporation—and provide a link that will bring you to a fake website. There they will direct you to sign into an account using your user ID and password (this is a popular one when they are pretending to be your bank), or to divulge key information, such as credit card numbers, account numbers, passwords, date of birth, driver’s license number, and social insurance numbers.

How to protect yourself:

  • Never click on a link in an unsolicited email.
  • If an email appears to be from someone you know but seems unusual in any way, try to reach the sender another way—such as by phone—to verify the email is legitimate.
  • Before you enter confidential or financial information online, check for the lock icon on your browser. Ensure the URL in the browser address bar starts with “https”.

2. Smishing: Smishing is very similar to phishing but uses SMS messaging (or text messages) to reach their victims—the term is actually a blend of “phishing” and “SMS”. Attacks via smishing have become more common given the open and response rates to text messages. While only 20 per cent of emails are opened, and six per cent are replied to, those numbers rise to 90 per cent and 45 per cent for text/ SMS messages.3 Research suggests people are more likely to trust a message that comes in through text versus email and are largely unaware of smishing attacks.

How to protect yourself:

  • Never click on a link in an unsolicited email.
  • Call the (apparent) sender directly. Legitimate companies and financial institutions don’t request account updates or login information via text. It’s always a good idea to confirm any requests received by text by calling the organization’s official number (i.e., the one on their official website, not the number contained in the message).
  • Check the phone number. Odd-looking phone numbers, such as 4-digit ones, can be evidence of email-to-text services. This is one of many tactics a scammer can use to mask their true phone number.

3. Romance scams: As an increasing number of seniors use online apps to meet new people, they are running into romance scams. And these scams are on the rise. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, in 2022 the romance scam was the number two most reported scam in Canada.

The scam: The cyber scammers target seniors, especially those recently divorced or widowed, due to their vulnerabilities and access to cash. Using dating, gaming, and social media websites, they pose as real people looking to connect. After striking up a relationship and establishing trust—and often after months of texting, emailing, or talking—scammers will request money.

For more on how to avoid a romance scam, check out the following article.

4. Fake computer warnings: Cybercriminals take advantage of what they figure we don’t know about our computers. So, if a warning message about a virus pops up on the screen, they rely on the fact that most people will want to take action to fix it. However, these warnings are fake, and for seniors with limited computer literacy, it can be especially easy to get tricked.

The scam: Fake virus warnings may appear on your screen as pop-ups (or even worse, voices or alarms), alerting you to a fake threat and encouraging you to act immediately — either by downloading a product or calling a tech support number to fix it.

If you call the number, you’ll reach a scammer who intends to collect your credit card information so they can remove the virus. They may even pressure you into sharing your screen so they can access all the data on your computer.

How to protect yourself:

  • Do not call a number or click a link that appears on your screen in an alert window.
  • Close the browser, regardless of any warnings not to.
  • Call someone — either a trusted friend or family member or the store where you bought your computer — for peace of mind that your device is OK.

Protecting the ones we love

Cyber scams are getting increasingly more sophisticated, and given their success with seniors, are likely to continue to target them. Educating yourself and those that you love and care for is the best way to avoid either you or them becoming a victim of cybercrime.

To learn more, check out the RBC cybersecurity site, and sign up to hear and learn about the latest scams with Scam Alerts


1Social Media Use in 2021. Brooke Auxier and Monica Anderson, 2021, Pew Research Center.

2Technology use among seniors. Monica Anderson and Andrew Perrin, 2017, Pew Research Center.

3The Future of Sales Follow-Ups: Text Messages. Stanzie Cote, 2019, Gartner, Inc

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