Protecting vulnerable adults from online scams

November 21, 2023

A sophisticated scam landscape

If you’ve noticed an uptick in the amount of scams and fraud circulating online lately, you’re not alone — and the latest scams can get incredibly sophisticated.

We’ve seen slick scams that use both cutting-edge technology and social engineering to gain traction with their targets. While they might not be swayed by the classic IRS impersonation robocalls or fake car warranty scams, these new scams might have you wondering: “What can I do to keep my loved ones safer from scams?”

What you can do to protect your loved ones

There are three categories of steps you can take to help protect your loved ones: helping them find digital safety tools that work for them, preventing online scams from finding them in the first place, and raising their scam awareness.

As you’re helping your them, remember: you’re on the same team, but your loved one is your team’s leader. It may be tempting to take over and set things up for them, but it’s important for them to be a part of the decision making process. Your goal is for your loved one to feel knowledgeable and empowered, rather than confused and vulnerable. That means working together to figure out what options work for them.

Digital safety for less tech-savvy people

You’re probably already familiar with basic security practices: keeping your devices and software up-to-date; using strong, unique passwords; and using app- or hardware-based 2FA. But for less tech-savvy people, these security steps may not feel approachable. The latest, most secure tools won’t help your loved ones be safer if they avoid using them because they’re not comfortable with them.

In practice, tuning security advice for less tech-savvy people means listening to what works for them and what their worries are. Remember, you’re a team working towards the goal of being safer online, and there’s no one-size-fits-all toolkit — so be creative with the resources you have.

Device and software updates

Keeping your devices and software updated is a cornerstone of your personal security. If your loved ones are more tech-savvy, they may be comfortable keeping their own devices and software updated. But if they’re not, the best way to keep their devices and software up-to-date can vary depending on the situation.

If you’re physically close to your loved one, the easiest option might be to set up regular times to see each other and update everything then. If you live far away, you’re tech savvy, and you have a strong relationship with your loved one, an MDM (mobile device management) system might be a better option. Or perhaps they’re more comfortable hiring an IT service to help or they have a neighbor they trust. Your loved one’s preferences matter, so make sure to ask what they’d like and to follow their lead.

Password notebooks and passcodes

Often, less tech-savvy people like to use the same password or similar passwords across their accounts to help them manage remembering many different passwords. But at the same time, they all know someone whose social media account was hacked. While they may not feel up to using a password manager, the old-fashioned password notebook combined with a random passphrase generator might be an approachable way for them to remember many strong, unique passwords.

Passphrases are easy for less tech-savvy people to type, and using a passphrase generator makes coming up with a unique password for each account effortless. And while a password notebook might not be convenient on-the-go, it may meet your loved one’s needs while improving their security.

Approachable two-factor authentication (2FA)

At this point, even people who aren’t familiar with the term “two-factor authentication” have likely used SMS- or email-based 2FA. If you’re tech savvy, you might know that SMS-based 2FA is vulnerable to some kinds of targeted attacks. It might be tempting to get your loved ones set up with a stronger form of 2FA instead.

But for many less tech-savvy people, expanding the 2FA system they already know how to use is more approachable. If they’re already familiar with the process of getting a code from their texts to sign in to their accounts, it might be better to simply make sure their most important accounts are protected with a form of 2FA they feel comfortable using.

Keeping the scams out of sight

The easiest way to protect your loved ones from scams is to stop the scams from showing up in the first place. Helping your loved ones install tools such as pop-up blockers will cut down on the number of scams they see through pop-ups and malicious advertisements. Our favorite adblocker is uBlock Origin, but there are many other options.

Raising scam awareness

Adblockers can help decrease the amount of scams our loved ones see, but there are plenty of other ways they might stumble across a scam. While it’d be nice always be around to help protect your loved ones from scams, that’s not always an option. Instead, some of the most powerful protection you can give your loved ones is to help them find resources to stay in-the-know about the latest scams. By being knowledgeable about what scams are out there, your loved one can identify scams before they gain traction.

While there are many great scam awareness resources, the AARP has some of the most flexible options for staying up-to-date on the latest scams. Whether your loved one decides to read their newsletter, listen to their podcast, or regularly check their scam map for new nearby scams, what matters is staying aware of what scams are out there.

The power of community

Working with your loved ones to help them stay safer from scams can be a long and frustrating process — especially during the holidays, when you’d rather spend your time enjoying each others’ company. But like online harassment, scams thrive from isolating people. Remember, simply being someone they can call for help or when they’re confused makes your loved ones less vulnerable to scammers.

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