Elder-Care and Internet Scams

“Melissa, I need you to call me. I just got a text from Microsoft saying my account was overdue and they’re going to lock my Word account if I don’t pay three hundred dollars.”


That’s the voicemail message I woke up with a few weeks ago. It came from my mother and was issued in an uncharacteristically panicked tone. I called her back, confirmed that she hadn’t paid anyone anything, and reminded her that her access to Microsoft Word and the rest of Office 365 is billed through my account, not her own.

While this scenario ended with no harm caused, my mother – who is actually pretty tech-savvy for a seventy-four-year-old – succumbed to a fake troubleshooting call last summer, which led to them installing spyware on her laptop. I had my husband clean up that mess, not because I don’t know how, but because when I try to help her with these things the conversations generally devolve into cursing. I’m her daughter; I’m supposed to just fix things and not question why they need fixing and allow my mother to vent her frustrations with herself at me. My husband, however, is never subject to this treatment.

But this isn’t about the fact that Mom and I are both type-A aggressive personalities who love each other as fiercely as we sometimes clash.

It’s about the way we, as caregivers and/or advisers to the elderly, must be ever more vigilant when it comes to scams that come in by phone and email. And there are a lot – some of them so convincing that even I have questioned the validity of more than one email.  The difference is that our elderly loved ones often react first and verify later, after damage has been done. Of greater concern is the suggestion in this article from the National Institute on Aging, which suggests that increased susceptibility to scams may be a sign of cognitive decline!

The most common phone scams are those which use fear tactics. Callers will purport to be representing the IRS or the local police department, and threaten legal action if money isn’t sent, either to pay “your debt” or to support your local law enforcement. Even the best-informed person may be caught off-guard when threatened, or when repercussions are mentioned. Text messages often arrive informing you of a breach in your bank account and asking you to – again – follow a link.

In email the most frequent scams involve fake invoices from PayPal or other companies you might actually use. There’s a link to click to dispute the charges – but the links don’t link to the real company. I received one of those just this morning, and it was so convincing that I had to confirm which email address I actually used with that company AND log in to check my account before I could breathe regularly again.

So, how do we protect our loved ones in a world where the use of AI and voice replication has made discerning what’s real from what is fake even harder?

This is one of the challenges of caregiving in the twenty-first century that isn’t discussed enough.

  • First, we caregivers must be extremely patient. We know that weird text, call, or email is likely a scam, but the aging brain doesn’t always make those leaps as quickly as it used to.
  • Second, we remind our loved ones to assess the message they’ve received: Did it come to the email you typically use for that company? Did you actually order anything recently? Do you even have an account with that company?
  • Third, we help them to verify the legitimacy of what they’ve received. Best practice is to look at the item on their device, but if that’s not necessary, they may need to forward it to us for direct inspection. At that point it’s much easier to check things like where links are really pointing, or what the email headers truly show.
  • Even then, the occasional scam can slip through, so it’s important that our own devices and those of the people we care for have up-to-date protection from viruses and spam,.

I know the next call from my mother is not far off. I will try my best to deal with her as if she isn’t my mother, but a client. (No guarantees it will work.) So far, she hasn’t lost any money to these faceless predators. We hope to keep it that way.

P.S. As I was proofreading this piece my mother called because her business Facebook page received one of those scam “your content is dangerous; your page will be shut down” messages. But this time, she was calling just to laugh at their audacity.

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