"I'm writing this with tears in my eyes. I came to London for a short vacation. I was mugged outside the hotel where we stayed. All my cash, credit cards and cellphone were stolen, but I still have my passport. But I need $1,200 to get home."
You may have seen a similar message, appearing to come from a friend or relative, show up in your social-media news feed. Or perhaps you've gotten one in an email.
Most people know that the plea for help is fake and part of a scam, and ignore it.
But one demographic group far too often ends up falling victim to this scam. Senior citizens don't always know the whereabouts of their adult grandchildren, or friends' grandchildren, and hence are especially susceptible to such con artists.
In fact, senior citizens are prime targets of Internet scammers, who put the seniors' finances and identities at risk.
Old but not out of the game
Some security experts believe senior citizens are especially vulnerable to scams because many people aged 65 and older aren't very Internet savvy, and hence are more apt to fall for online scams.
However, that doesn't make sense for two reasons.
First, the Internet isn't new anymore. There still may be many elderly people who are computer newbies, but there are a lot of other people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s who have been online for 15 or 20 years.
Second, senior citizens were targets of scammers for generations before the Internet. Back in those days, scammers used telephones to contact their victims, or just showed up on their doorsteps.
The only difference is that today, the Internet has opened up a lot of new ways to scam a lot of people. And let's be honest, a lot of people have fallen (or nearly fallen) for a phishing scheme.
Yet the identity-theft rate of senior citizens is rising more quickly than that of any other age demographic (other than infants, whose identities can easily be stolen by parents or other close relatives). There has to be a reason why seniors are much more susceptible to these scams.
In fact, there is, according to researchers at the University of Iowa who published a paper on the subject last year. As people age, the area of the brain that controls belief and doubt, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, deteriorates.
In other words, as people get older, they become more gullible.
What complicates matters is that many of the scams involve things older adults are most interested in.
"Seniors are often involved with governmental programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, that can be complicated and confusing,"explained Steven J.J. Weisman, a Boston-area lawyer who has focused on elder law. "This is a lethal combination for identity thieves and scam artists, who prey upon elders with many scams related to these programs."
Older adults tend to be most vulnerable to lottery scams, Weisman said, but the biggest risk to identity theft is a willingness to give out identification related to Social Security, Medicare and other programs when asked.
"My most basic advice is that seniors should not provide personal information to anyone, regardless of who they say they are," said Weisman, who operates the website Scamicide.com and provides updates on the latest scams and identity theft schemes. "You can never be sure of the real identity of someone contacting you."
Instead of giving out identification information right away to the person who demands it, contact the relevant agency to verify authenticity, Weisman suggested.
But, Weisman added, don't reply directly to an email that asks for ID. That could trigger a conversation with the scammer, who may be an expert at sweet-talking potential victims.
Despite their aging brains, there are ways older Internet users can educate themselves about security risks.
"Seniors often do not know the signs to look for to prevent victimization in a phishing scheme," said Daniel Draz, principal at Fraud Solutions, a global fraud consultancy based in the Chicago area. "Also, many do not have the necessary security technology installed on their computers."
How to not be a victim of identity theft
To help prevent identity theft and financial loss, here are a few tips older adults (and everyone else) should follow:
- Learn the basic signs of a phishing scheme: misspelled words, generic greetings and demands for private information such as Social Security numbers, bank-account numbers or passwords. Legitimate emails, especially from the government, will not ask for these details in an email. In fact, many government programs never send email notices.
- Make sure your computer has up-to-date anti-virus software, free or paid, and that security patches are always installed immediately.
- Make friends with a computer-savvy teenager or college student. Young people can provide feedback on what's real and what's a scam.
- If you aren't sure about something, ask someone at the relevant government agency.