My amazing 83-year-old mother has not found a technology that she does not want to learn. Computers, scanners, Facebook, mobile phones, printers, e-mail, you name it. Most recently she learned to text — though her texting circle only includes three people — me, and my daughter (her granddaughter), and my cousin, Sandy. So it was with some surprise that mom suddenly noticed an extra $9.99 on her cell phone bill — for a texting service. She has no idea how she got signed up — the messages from this company were on her phone, but she had not returned a single text to them. And why on earth would my mother have wanted this service to begin with? She did not, but that company gambled that she might not look over her bills too closely.
Which brings me to online scams. All of us, but especially our senior parents, need to be primed to watch for them and protect ourselves.
Every minute of every day people are victims of online scams — most often they arrive via e-mail, although clearly my mom’s arrived by text. Some experts estimate that one person every 10 seconds is a victim of some type of scam or identity theft (I heard this somewhere, and would love to know where.), and often the theft of personal information is easier because the victim unwittingly provides personal data. Families with multiple computers are especially vulnerable because people are working on many different online tasks. Seniors are susceptible because they do not always know their way around the online world, though there are plenty of people also trying to trick them in the everyday world. People in general are susceptible because the scams often promise easy money or good feelings that come from helping others (name your disaster and there will be a fake charity scam).
The consumer affairs reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sheryl Harris, has developed Scamfinder, an extensive database to help people identify questionable e-mail or phone calls. What an amazing service. While most of us are familiar with the unrelenting e-mails from Nigeria, many other online scams, usually delivered by e-mail, are realistic and unnerving because they hit so close to home — for instance a charity soliciting around the time of a natural catastrophe or a seemingly thoughtful person writing to ask for contributions to police or victims of abuse. Sheryl Harris is often featured on the Market Place radio program, most recently on September 6, 2010. Scamfinder categories include:
- Work at home scams
- Charity scams
- Online dating
- Payment processing
- Mystery shopper scams
People often ask me about the difference between scams and urban legends. Essentially, scams have a victim and involve money — often significant amounts — while urban legends, also delivered by e-mail, usually involve tall tales forwarded over and over via email. Assume something is a scam until you know absolutely that it is not. No reputable business or charity will ever request personal financial information via e-mail. Everyone in your family who is online needs to be on guard, no matter how good or heartrending the story.