Cyber Attacks: What Makes Me Vulnerable?

Returning from a trip to Italy, a retired couple was alarmed to find their telephone answering service full of messages from frantic friends: “Are you OK? Please call right away. What can we do to help?”

The stunned pair soon learned that scammers had infiltrated their computer system and gained control of their email list. Posing as the couple, these criminals had sent out desperate email messages to family and friends telling them they were in trouble and needed money. Even though a number of people reached out, no one took the bait. Fortunately, all were suspicious enough not to take action and did not send the scammers any money.

However, the damage to the couple’s computer system had already been done. The retirees needed to hire a professional company to clean up the mess.

More than a third of Canadian seniors (39 percent) surveyed say someone has tried to scam them online, and 29 percent have downloaded a computer virus, according to research conducted by Home Instead, Inc., franchisor of the Home Instead Senior Care® network.

Such cyber attacks can happen to anyone. However, older adults could be particularly vulnerable for the following reasons, according to Public Safety Canada, the National Cyber Security Alliance, the Better Business Bureau and Home Instead Senior Care:

Complexity of computers and devices – “It’s so complicated and confusing.” With an ever-evolving cyber world, it can be a challenge to stay informed about the many tools and practices needed to stay safe online. Make sure the software and/or the security systems on your computer and electronic devices are up-to-date.

“Anyone can be susceptible to online fraud, but you can be particularly vulnerable if you’re unfamiliar with the technology or software that’s installed in your devices,” said Mark Matz, Director of Policy and Issues Management with the National Cyber Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada. “If you need a new computer or a significant software update, be sure to ask a computer professional or a tech-savvy loved one to help talk you through the changes, so you can feel comfortable should a problem arise.”

According to the Home Instead research (PDF), approximately one in five seniors goes without anti-virus software. Anti-virus and malware scans as well as systems sweeps help ensure that computers and all the important information they process are well-protected. If you don’t want to deal with that, ask for help from a trusted family member or computer professional to keep your computer and systems up-to-date and well-maintained.

Oversharing – “Everyone should know about my wonderful granddaughter.” The majority of Canadian seniors interviewed in the Home Instead survey use social media. And about 11 percent of those users reported having negative social media experiences, including being asked for money and having to block someone. It’s OK to brag about your family on Facebook. But be careful about sharing too many details, such as where your granddaughter goes to school. That could be dangerous for you and your grandchild. Also, you can make sure that your privacy settings are set up in a way that prevents strangers from viewing the details of your profile. Scammers and spammers often use personal information to pose as your loved ones reaching out for money and help.

Weak passwords – “I’ve kept my password simple. It’s my street address!” Passwords are a window into nearly every action on the computer from accessing your bank account to your Facebook page and email account. According to the National Cyber Security Alliance, weak passwords are one of the easiest ways for criminals to break through security. It’s best to use a mix of letters, numbers and symbols in your password, and according to Public Safety Canada, ensure passwords are at least 8-12 characters long. Avoid using personal information or common words. And try to change your password frequently. In addition, avoid using the same password for all accounts. Two-step authentication of accounts provides another layer of protection. Go to to learn more.

A trusting nature – “My credit card company emailed me saying my payment didn’t go through – I better pay it again!” Scammers and spammers may target older adults for several reasons. One is financial security and the other is a trusting nature. According to Public Safety Canada, older adults are particularly vulnerable to phishing scams, often because they aren’t familiar with how financial institutions or large corporations typically contact their customers. Scam emails often come with a sense of urgency. You’re told: “You must do this right now or else…!” Don’t immediately react to emails calling for swift action.

Websites: How do you know what’s real and what’s fake?

As handy as the internet can be for accessing information, shopping and helping with daily tasks, there are pockets of the online world that can be misleading and fake. And for those who didn’t grow up with the internet it can be especially difficult to spot the difference.

According to Public Safety Canada, here are some tips on how to spot the good sites versus the bad ones:

News Sites

  • Writing Quality: Real journalists are usually excellent writers, but fake news sites often have typos and poor grammar. You should also be cautious of “click bait” headlines that over-embellish a story and mislead readers.

  • The Source: These days, anyone can create a website. But not everyone can write a good quality, balanced news story. It’s best to get your news from popular and reputable news sources instead of small blogs or websites that don’t look professional.

Retail or Banking Sites

  • The URL: When shopping or banking online, you should always check the URL to make sure it says “https” – as the “s” stands for “secure.” Also, look at the URL for a padlock symbol. This indicates that the site has a secure connection making it safe to share sensitive information.

  • Working Telephone Number: If you’re at all unsure of the site you’re shopping on, give the phone number on the website a call to see if it goes through to a legitimate business.

There are plenty of other tips that will help you identify a scam online. For more information, visit

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