Not a week passes without news of cybercriminals disproportionately targeting older folks above the age of 60. And when they lose money, it’s big bucks. With their lifetime of savings and a more trusting demeanour, these late adopters of technology are popular prey for fraudsters who call using different tactics – kind words, attention and a sense of connection or frighten, warn and bully them into relenting.
Namita Rao, 75 from Bandra is still in denial that the well-spoken man who called her last month – in the guise of her mobile phone service provider offering to help update her KYC – siphoned off a big chunk of her hard-earned money. “I don’t know what came over me. I usually delete messages from unknown numbers but this one got me hassled because my phone is my only connection with the outside world,” says Rao, an ex-banker living by herself on a pension of Rs 6000 for the past 25 years. “The caller went from aggressive to friendly to sympathetic. He knew how to win me over and I was mesmerised. Didn’t realise that something was wrong until I called my neighbour.” To her horror, Rao had been defrauded of Rs 70,000 out of the Rs 98,000 she had in the bank.
If KYC updation is one of the top scams targeting seniors, other forms of financial cyber frauds include fake insurance schemes, online marketplace cons where scammers pose as genuine buyers or sellers, and romance scams where men pretending to be women approach them on social media promising a happy future and then swindle them out of their savings.
If the modus operandi for e-shopping is to send a malicious QR code designed to dupe unsuspecting seniors into handing over their banking or personal information, those pretending to be from a bank, credit card or mobile phone company get victims to either elicit an OTP or download an app that gives them remote access to the senior’s device.
“Data thefts have become a popular way for scammers to obtain confidential information. Recently a famous pizza delivery chain’s data was stolen, which meant that their customers’ names, addresses, debit card numbers and phone numbers were compromised. Such data is then illegally sold on the dark web and bought by scammers who contact the people on those lists. When a con man calls and claims to know a person’s name and address, he develops credibility and manages to defraud them,” explained Yashasvi Yadav, special IGP Maharashtra Cyber department.
While Maharashtra has recently started operations under a centralised helpline – 155260 – launched last year for cyber fraud victims to report an incident with police, banks, e-wallets integrated into it to prevent the flow of money siphoned off by fraudsters,Yadav feels that financial institutions need to do more to “intervene, protect and improve online financial literacy” among seniors. “Banks offering online transactions should conduct orientation courses made mandatory through an executive order or law,” he says, adding that senior citizens account for “30% of the cases out of a total of 10,000 complaints from the state in the last three months” on the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal.
Cyber investigator Ritesh Bhatia agrees with how underrated the problem of elder scams are as he recalls being jolted into this realisation last year when his own father was on the verge of being conned by a cyber thief. “I took control at the nick of time and salvaged his lifelong savings but felt very guilty for failing to create awareness in my own home. Hundreds like me are failing to secure elders in a digital world. Maybe because we don’t have the time or patience to talk to them. It’s important to not just hand seniors technology but also teach them how to use it safely,” says Bhatia.
Scammers know that if they say the right words, a senior will do anything to make things right.
Sixty five-year-old *Hari Daga, who finds himself fielding sales calls all day for his cloth business in Andheri could not afford to waste time when a scammer messaged that his phone was about to get blocked if he did not update his KYC instantly. “I was afraid that my business would get disrupted. I followed his instructions and in seconds my money was gone,” recounts Daga who was duped of Rs 90,000.
Another hurdle that seniors face is embarrassment and therefore less likely to report a scamming incident out of fear that their families may not want them to use technology anymore. “Let’s not forget that at this age many seniors struggle with various health conditions under the dementia spectrum that impair their ability to think and remember,” points out Bhatia.
*Peter Dias, 67, defrauded of a whopping Rs 2.7 lakh last month was so ashamed that for the first few minutes of conversation, he spoke haltingly and relented only after being assured that his real name wouldn’t be used. “I haven’t told anyone in my family or my friends. I wasn’t going to complain to the police either until the bank told me they would need an FIR copy to investigate,” says Dias, trying to reassure that his reflexes are as sharp as anyone social and active. “Just four years ago I did a road trip from Mumbai to London and back. I’ve also done multiple online transactions for hotel or flight bookings. Yet, I don’t know how I could be so stupid and get hypnotised by the caller,” he rues.
The effect of being taken in by scammers can be psychologically damaging to vulnerable elders. If Daga’s confidence, has taken a beating, Dias lived in fear for a few weeks after the scam, fearful that the fraudsters might trap him physically. Rao is back to her old school ways. “I got a smartphone just five years ago to talk to people,” she says until the lockdown pushed her to find another use for her phone – e-wallets for online payments.