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Illustrations By Stephanie Cheng

How to respectfully help seniors avoid online fraud

Pro tips for sussing out scams and becoming a digital advocate for the people you love

Jessica Gunson is always happy to hear from her grandfather. He sometimes apologizes for the call, but Gunson is never fussed. Even when he rings to ask her a question about something that might seem inconsequential at the time, like a weird phone call he received or an email that just didn’t sit right. In fact, those are exactly the kinds of things she wants him to call her about.

In 2017, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), where Gunson is acting call centre and intake unit manager, reported nearly 72,000 mass fraud complaints, adding up to a loss of more than $110 million.

We’re all at risk online, but seniors are a target group, especially since people 65 and older are the fastest-growing group of internet users in Canada. Yet many of the online scams perpetrated on Canadians go unreported (fewer than five percent, in fact). Seniors may avoid reporting because of embarrassment or fear of losing their financial independence.

Whether you have an elderly parent, neighbour or friend, it’s important to be a digital advocate for them, no matter how online-savvy they may seem. Gunson shares her advice for how to broach the topic with the seniors in our lives, and what we all need to watch out for when it comes to internet fraud.

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How to advocate without being pushy

It’s tricky territory, advising older and wiser-in-many-ways people about how to stay safe online without sounding condescending. It can be even more difficult if they’ve already been taken advantage of. “Have a compassionate attitude,” says Gunson. “You can’t get mad at them for believing something that they thought was true. Be that advocate by helping them to report it, because often scammers do follow up and try to manipulate them again.”

If you need to advocate on the sly, you can still pass along information without making someone feel as though you doubt their online intelligence. Try printing out a booklet of online protection tips or the latest scams, like this Little Black Book of Scams and dropping it off with a line about how you were printing it for another friend and wondered if they’d like a copy, too.

Gunson also recommends leaving the line of communication open so they know that you’re there to help, no matter how frivolous the questions they have may seem to them. “It’s important to let them know that they’re never a bother.”

Keep passwords safe

The number-one rule of passwords is: you don’t talk about passwords. Gunson recommends using a different password for every account, and changing them every 90 days. It’s an exercise she acknowledges is sometimes difficult to stick to. At the very least, advise the seniors in your life to create strong passwords, using an online generator or subbing in symbols and numbers for letters. Even if a hacker knows that your dog is named Maddie, they probably won’t be able to crack your code if it’s spelled m@Dd1e.

While jotting down a password isn’t the best idea, it can be hard for anyone to remember them all. If you do write them down, do it in a notebook that you keep in a secure drawer or safe. “The second you write a password down, it creates a vulnerability,” says Gunson. Her trick? Putting password clues in a safe spot to jog her memory. For those more eager to learn, password management apps can help by keeping all login information secure under a single master password.

What does scam and fraud even look like?

Fraudsters are getting savvier when it comes to finding new ways to trick us, so keep up-to-date on the latest scams and frauds and discuss them with your elderly friends, too. Here’s a list of some of the top scams that seniors encounter:

Extortion: A popular one is a call from someone claiming to be from the CRA saying to pay up or face jail time. Hang up and call the CRA to confirm if you owe back taxes. Never give personal information on an inbound call. Oh, and the government doesn’t want you to pay your taxes with iTunes gift cards, so recognize that as a red flag, too. The CRA will also never email you a tax refund.

Service: That aggressive popup saying your computer has a virus and to call a number for service? That’s a hacker trying to gain access to your computer to get at your personal and financial info. Well-known computer companies don’t provide popup phone numbers for computer repair. Never provide unsolicited callers remote access.

Animated illustration of fish swimming around a senior's head

Phishing: These are very legit-looking emails claiming to be from a reputable company. This scam is meant to collect personal and financial information, so watch for spelling and grammar mistakes, and don’t click any links. If you’re unsure, call up the company it’s from (looking up their number, not using the number listed in the email), to inquire.

Prize: You’ve just won our sweepstakes! If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket and no legit lottery company will ever request that you send money to secure your winnings.

Emergency: This one might be a call or an email claiming to be a grandchild or family friend needing money urgently. Get in touch with family before sending any money to fact-check the validity of the emergency.

Romance: Scammers fall in love quickly and often. Be wary of a stranger professing their love. Often, they’ll request money for bills or want you to invest in a business opportunity. Don’t send cash or cheques to them for any reason.

Don’t be afraid to report anything fishy

“Trust your gut if something doesn’t sound right, don’t just dismiss it,” Gunson says. “If you get a strange email, spend 30 seconds doing the research to find out if it’s a scam.” It’s important to report anything shady, even if you didn’t take the bait. The CAFC can be reached at 1-888-495-8501 and has a 24/7 online resource to report fraud or spam.

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