Beware grandparent scams in South Africa – perhaps the worst of them all

 ·10 Sep 2022

Cybercrime has multiple niches and approaches, but perhaps the worst is the targeting of older people and taking advantage of their vulnerability, notes KnowBe4 AFRICA, a provider of security awareness training.

The grandparent scam. Phishing. Online fraud. Financial exploitation. These are just some of the attacks that are directed at older people and that are proving to be unpleasantly successful, it said.

A team of researchers at the University of Southern California found that lonely older adults are more vulnerable to scams, particularly phishing emails, investment schemes and the grandparent scam – the fake call about a grandchild needing financial help urgently.

This concern is reflected in a study undertaken by Consumer Affairs, which found that older people are conned out of as much as $3 billion annually and that seniors successfully targeted by a fraudster lose an average of $34,200.

The risk remains high for people who are isolated, don’t spend a lot of time with digital technologies, and who are at risk purely due to their age, said Anna Collard, SVP content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 AFRICA.

“Research has found that older people are more vulnerable to scams because with age, we lose the ability to detect manipulation from genuine communication,” said Collard. “There have been numerous studies that have pointed to how cognitive impairments in older people open the door to cybercriminals who take advantage of these gaps and these people.”

A paper written by Matthew Grilli, a professor in the College of Science- Psychology at the University of Arizona, and colleagues found that ‘older age was related to worse discrimination between genuine and phishing emails’. All this points to a concerning issue – older people need better protection from cybercrime and more insight into the warning signs that could indicate they are being defrauded.

“Cognitive issues that come hand in hand with ageing or perhaps an illness such as Alzheimer’s, will change how a person perceives social engineering,” said Collard.

“This is why the fraudulent message, call or email that pretends to be from a struggling grandchild is so popular and successful. Older people may not notice the shifty email address or dodgy phone number, or they may assume that their grandchild has simply changed their email or phone number. They then respond to the request and lose their funds.”

The situation has been somewhat worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people have been isolated or on their own for a long time, and this in itself can impact how a person thinks and reacts. Unfortunately, this is precisely what criminals take advantage of. While loneliness and isolation are not exclusive to older people in terms of their impact, they do play a role in increasing the vulnerability of older people, the training specialist said.

“Scammers are polite, charming and friendly, that’s how they get your attention and win your trust,” said Collard. “It is this warmth and kindness that lures people in. Anyone hearing someone being overly nice will be wary of their intentions, whereas someone isolated and lonely may appreciate it and fall prey to the scam.”

It is important today to help older people recognise these scams with consistent education and awareness. Show them how intelligent scammers are and the vast size of the industry – there are call centres dedicated to calling people just to scam them, it’s not just older people at risk. Everyone is.

“The cybercriminals have key performance indicators, targets to meet, quotas to fill,” said Collard. “They are out there trying to make money and catch people unawares and they don’t care who makes the mistake that gets them what they want. Their job is to build a rapport and charm or use fear to gain access to accounts, whether these are on the phone or online.

“They will likely have some information about you – address, phone number – and will use this information to gain trust. A great example is the scam call pretending to be from your bank about verifying a suspicious transaction. To avoid falling into these traps, people need to be suspicious by default.”

Read: Beware the ‘doting grandparent scam’ in South Africa, top insurer warns

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