Can You Protect a Senior From Internet Scams?

Posted: Aug 12, 2013 12:01 AM
Dear Carrie, My 75-year-old mother is pretty independent. She uses email and is comfortable online getting news and even making some purchases. Lately, she's been telling me about offers for things like insurance and investments, and I worry she'll be the victim of a scam. How can I help without seeming overly protective? --A Reader

Dear Reader, There's no doubt that Internet usage by seniors is growing dramatically. A recent Pew Internet Survey showed 30 percent of people 75 and older use the Internet. Of that group, between 50 and 89 percent go online for email, searches, purchases, news and travel reservations. Thirty-five percent bank online. This age group also had the fastest growth in using social network sites.

While this is good news in terms of seniors embracing new technologies and keeping connected, it does open the door to more and more folks being vulnerable to online scams. And there are plenty out there. From phishing in order to steal personal information to offers of too-good-to-be-true investment opportunities, Internet users of all ages need to be aware of how to protect themselves.

Since you say your mother is pretty independent, she might be a bit sensitive if you question her about her Internet use. But seniors are a definite target for scammers, so your concern is justified. It may just require a bit more tact in addressing it.

Start by expressing your own security concerns

Have you received a suspicious email recently that you can show your mother? Or perhaps, as seems to be happening more often these days, have you received bogus messages from someone who has had their email hacked? While the plea for money from a friend who's supposedly been robbed while traveling may now feel familiar, having your email hacked can lead to serious financial loss. Share these stories and concerns with your mother. Make her aware that anyone using the Internet is a potential victim.

Talk about common scams

Online scams take all forms, from lotteries and sweepstakes to weight loss and miracle cures. Those that seem particularly targeted to seniors are investment opportunities that prey on an older person's fear of running out of money, offers of insurance policies that will pay your bills should something happen to you, or emails pretending to be from a well-known source, such as a bank or other familiar financial company, claiming the need to verify account information.

These fraudulent offers not only present a potential financial loss for the person who responds, but they can lead to identity theft -- with even greater problems and losses. According to the Federal Trade Commission, 11.7 million people, representing five percent of all people in the U.S. 16 and older, were victims of identity theft between 2006 and 2008 alone. Maybe you and your mother can explore the FTC website together. It has a lot of information about common scams and how to spot them.

Share your techniques for not falling victim

Scammers are smart and know how to push emotional buttons to get a response. While we all hope that we won't be taken in, it happens to many of us. And an older person may be particularly sensitive about looking incompetent should she fall victim to a scam. To help your mother protect herself, review with her the things you do to stay clear of scams. Here's my list:

--Never reply to an unknown email.

--Never click on a link or download information unless you know the sender. Even then you need to be cautious because some links and downloads may contain malware or spyware that can monitor or control your computer use and gain access to your personal and financial information.

--Don't call a phone number provided in an unknown email, even if it has a local area code.

--Don't email personal or financial information.

--If you receive a suspicious email from a bank or other company, contact that company by phone to alert them.

--Make sure you have up-to-date security software on your computer.

If you have been the victim of fraud, identity theft or deceptive business practices, you can file a complaint with the FTC at or by calling 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357).

Open the door to a broader financial discussion

By taking this approach, rather than you seeming over protective, you and your mother will be discussing potential problems on the same level. This might also lead to a broader discussion of her financial know-how, whether it is investments, insurance or estate planning. At any age, it's important to be frank and honest about all these things. It will make you both feel more secure about the present, along with the future.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of "It Pays to Talk." You can email Carrie at This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at