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“Phantom hacker” scams — tech support-style scams that trick people into transferring money by falsely claiming their computer or online security is compromised — are on the rise, and “significantly impacting senior citizens, who often lose their entire bank, savings, retirement or investment accounts to such crime”, CNBC reports. Notably, as of August 2023, damages stemming from tech support scams surged by 40%, compared to the corresponding period in 2022, a recent FBI public advisory reveals (specifics on the total financial impact, however, weren’t disclosed). 50% of people targeted were over 60 years old, accounting for 66% of the total financial damages.

Financial predation: exploiting seniors’ savings

Ample financial resources, technological unfamiliarity, and a generally trusting nature collectively makes the elderly a prime target for phantom hacker scams. “Older adults have generally amassed a larger nest egg than younger age groups, and therefore pose a more lucrative target for criminals. Older adults are also particularly mindful of potential risks to their life savings,” Gregory Nelsen, FBI Cleveland special agent in charge, said in a statement. “These scammers are cold and calculated,” he added. “The criminals are using the victims’ own attentiveness against them”. Additionally, older adults may be less familiar with the intricacies of technology and cybersecurity, making them more susceptible to manipulation and deception. And, due to the generally polite and trusting nature of seniors, scammers can have an easier time establishing rapport and gaining the trust needed to pull off their scams. 

Deceptive tactics: understanding phantom hacker scams

Understanding how phantom hacker scams operate is crucial for safeguarding yourself against deceptive tactics and financial exploitation. In phantom hacker scams, scammers pretend to be computer technicians from reputable companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, or antivirus software providers like Norton or McAfee. They then claim there’s a serious issue with your computer or online security, like a virus or hacking threat, suggesting that your financial accounts are also at risk from these supposed issues. The scammer convinces you to transfer your money to a “safe” account they control in order to protect your funds — often while masquerading as bank representatives or government officials, so as to lend the scam credibility. Yet, the threat was never real, and the scammers unjustly end up with your money. Shockingly, roughly 19,000 people reported experiencing tech-support scams in the first half of 2023, with losses adding up to over $542 million — this is compared to roughly 33,000 total complaints and $807 million in losses in 2022.  

Protecting against phantom hackers: tips for seniors 

Be cautious of — and never click on — unsolicited calls, emails, computer pop-ups, or links in emails and text messages claiming to be from tech support, financial institutions, or government agencies. Instead, verify the legitimacy of the contact by independently researching the organization and contacting them through official channels if necessary. If you’re ever unsure about a message’s legitimacy, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted family member, friend, or tech-savvy individual for guidance. Age-inclusive communities containing people of all ages and from all walks of life can be particularly beneficial to seniors as they provide access to a diverse range of perspectives and expertise, fostering collaboration and support in navigating potential scams and enhancing overall cybersecurity awareness and protection. Similarly, never download software from someone you don’t know or trust, especially if they reached out to you unsolicited. Never share sensitive information — such as Social Security numbers, bank account details, or passwords — over the phone, email, or online unless you initiated the contact and are certain of the recipient’s identity.   

Cybersecurity best practices

Keep your devices, including computers, smartphones, and tablets, updated with the latest software patches and security updates, while also using reputable antivirus and antimalware software to protect against threats. This proactive approach toward cybersecurity works to patch known security flaws and detect and remove malicious software, thereby reducing the risk of falling prey to phantom hacking attempts. Also, consider installing a firewall to add an extra layer of protection to your devices and networks — this is basically a barrier between your internal network (e.g., your computer or home network) and external networks, like the internet. A good firewall serves as a gatekeeper, allowing only trusted connections while blocking suspicious or harmful ones, thus protecting you from phantom hacking attempts. 

Knowledge is power: empowering seniors with cybersecurity awareness

It’s also useful to stay up-to-date with the latest scams and cybersecurity threats targeting seniors by reading trusted sources, such as, government websites, cybersecurity blogs, or newsletters. While you may first require some initial guidance to navigate these sources, once you become familiar with them, you’ll find it easy and empowering to stay updated on the latest threats and best practices for online safety, ensuring you can navigate the digital world with confidence and security. Additionally, community centers or senior centers may also offer workshops focused on online safety, providing valuable opportunities for seniors to enhance cybersecurity knowledge. 

Phantom hacking is a threat seniors need to understand and remain vigilant against. By staying informed and implementing strong cybersecurity measures, seniors can protect themselves from falling prey to these deceptive schemes and enjoy a safer online experience.