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Columbia Business Monthly

How to protect your grandma from hackers and online scams

By Kevin Wentzel

COO, Kopis

Imagine this. It's your son's eighth birthday. Every year, your parents send him a check for the dollar amount of the age he's turning. You go to the bank with your son to cash his $8 and are shocked to find out the check bounces. It can't be. Your parents have been ruthlessly saving for retirement their entire lives. Your father investigates only to discover the account has been completely drained. 

It's a horror story all too common. According to AARP, the amount that older generations are scammed out of each year is in the billions, and that's in America alone. 

Senior citizens are oftentimes the most vulnerable when it comes to online scams. They're a prime target for hackers. Why?

They typically have nest eggs, own their own homes and have excellent credit scores. 

People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say "no" or just hang up the telephone.

Older Americans are less likely to report a fraud because they don't know who to report it to, are too ashamed at having been scammed or don't know they have been scammed. Elderly victims may not report crimes, for example, because they are concerned that relatives may think the victims no longer have the mental capacity to take care of their own financial affairs.

When an elderly victim does report the crime, they often make poor witnesses. Con artists know the effects of age on memory, and they are counting on elderly victims not being able to supply enough detailed information to investigators. In addition, the victims' realization that they have been swindled may take week—or more likely, month—after contact with the fraudster. This extended time frame makes it even more difficult to remember details from the events.

Senior citizens are more interested in and susceptible to products promising increased cognitive function, virility, physical conditioning, anti-cancer properties and so on. In a country where new cures and vaccinations for old diseases have given every American hope for a long and fruitful life, it is not so unbelievable that the con artists' products can do what they claim.

There are numerous kinds of scams that target seniors, including work-from-home, government impersonators, fake law enforcement intimidation, romantic overtures, grandchildren in harm's way and fake car sales. 

But there are ways to be proactive in protecting their data from scams.

Make your parents' phone number unlisted so scammers can't get it. Consider replacing their landline with a cellphone, where scam calls are less frequent. 

Put your parents' addresses on opt-out lists with the Direct Marketing Association. Once done, legitimate vendors won't send junk mail, and parents will know that what arrives is likely from scammers. That  fake mail should be reported to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

Check their credit reports at to ensure that fraudulent new accounts haven't been opened in their names. 

Teach your parents about common scam methods and advise them to never hand out personal information or money on the phone or to strangers. 

Help your parents change/update their passwords.

Update your parents' computers with the latest firewall and anti-virus protections.

If you think you have been compromised, call and notify the institution immediately to report the activity and change your usernames and passwords on all your compromised accounts. We recommend using your malware detection software and antivirus to scan your PC to ensure there is nothing malicious on your computer. If sensitive information has been accessed, remember you can freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus for free in a matter of minutes online. Report any fraud to the FBI or call 1-855-303-9470, which is the U.S. Senate's helpline for fraud against the aging.

Kevin Wentzel is the COO of Kopis, a Greenville-based software developer. Learn more at

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