Email to a friend
opens new avenues for con artists seeking to bilk the elderly
Business & Law Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
As more elderly Americans use the Internet, the potential for Internet
fraud that targets the elderly grows, according to an article in the
latest issue of the Elder
Eric L. Carlson, an editor at the journal, writes that the Internet
allows con artists to think – and act – globally. Compared
with scams that use the mails or telephone, the Internet opens new markets
for criminals by greatly multiplying the potential number of victims
as well as reducing the cost with which the scam can be carried out.
For example, with the aid of easily obtainable software, con artists
can cloak themselves in secrecy and launch online scams that spread
rapidly online and then disappear. “Using anonymous e-mails, short-lived
Web sites and falsified domain name registrations, many fraud operators
are able to strike quickly, victimize thousands of consumers in a short
period of time and disappear without a trace,” Carlson wrote.
Effective law enforcement against Internet fraud is made difficult because
many of the perpetrators conduct all or part of their operations overseas,
rendering them legally and practically beyond the reach of the Federal
Trade Commission and U.S. courts.
The elderly are natural targets for some of the most common fraudulent
schemes that deal with “miracle” medical products and “too-good-to-be-true”
investment scams, Carlson wrote in the journal, which is published by
the University of Illinois College
Currently, about one in three elderly Americans go online, often to
access medical and financial information. In fact, the Kaiser Family
Foundation reports that seniors now depend more on the Internet than
on books and newspapers as a source for health information.
The elderly are especially vulnerable to “phishing,” or
forged e-mail messages aimed at stealing credit-card account numbers,
passwords or Social Security numbers. Often these mass mailings appear
to be from a bank or government agency and use scare tactics, such as
threats to close an account, in order to panic victims into disclosing
personal information to a fake Web site.
“Phishing scams are constantly evolving to become more sophisticated
and effective,” according to the Illinois scholar. Investigators
report that e-mails sent as part of a phishing scam typically yield
a positive response rate of between 1 and 5 percent. “This statistic
is staggering considering a spammer’s ability to send out literally
hundreds of thousands of e-mails in a matter of minutes,” Carlson
Phishing is just one method of engaging in online identity theft, in
which a victim’s identifying information can be fraudulently used
to run up bills, open credit-card accounts or even obtain a home loan
in the victim’s name.
The elderly make appealing targets to scam artists because they have
greater assets than other age groups and are less aware of the dangers
of online predators. “Despite the grave risk that identity theft
poses to the elderly, one survey determined that more than one-third
of adults over 60 did not know what identity theft is,” the article
Given the problems with legal enforcement, Carlson said that educational
programs could help combat Internet fraud. The Federal Trade Commission,
for example, maintains a database to track and prevent online fraud.
The author recommends that considerably more resources be marshaled
for educational efforts. These could include classes sponsored by community
colleges, nursing homes and business groups that teach older Americans
how to use the Internet safely and reduce their vulnerability to phishers
and purveyors of worthless health products.