While many of us are technologically savvy and can instantly recognize an email or internet scam, there is a vulnerable population that can’t. Here’s a story for my 86-year-old grandmother and the rest of the internet users who aren’t familiar with the nefarious threats lurking online, but should be.
Maybe you know someone like my grandmother, Marcy (Grammy to me). She is trying her best to join the 21st century but is frequently bewildered by it. When she receives an email telling her that it is important to click a link, she assumes that it is important to click that link.
Why else would they be asking her to do such a thing?
If you get an email like that, you probably know better. You know that they are “phishing” for information. But my grandmother doesn’t.
The Federal Trade Commission explains phishing on its website:
When internet fraudsters impersonate a business to trick you into giving out your personal information, it’s called phishing. Don’t reply to email, text, or pop-up messages that ask for your personal or financial information. Don’t click on links within them either — even if the message seems to be from an organization you trust. It isn’t…
And this is part of the problem. In a tactic called email spoofing, these emails can further confuse the receiver by appearing to come from a trusted source; such as Dell, Microsoft, Walmart, or your bank. Sometimes, these emails may even appear to be coming from a friend. It is not difficult for internet phishers to change the email address of the sender.
A typical phishing email might warn that “your computer is compromised. It is necessary to download this upgrade immediately. If you do not download this upgrade, your computer will be open to attack.” Of course, this type of message can be intimidating for someone unfamiliar with these types of scams.
Recently, we received this very type of email to our Elliott.org help line. While we did not click on the link, it spurred this story to try to warn others about this type of internet trickery.
But when my grandmother receives that type of email, she does click the link.
Then one of a variety of things happens.
If she is lucky, the link just takes her to a web page advertising a product that she has no interest in. But unfortunately, what usually happens is that some type of malware is suddenly downloaded to her computer.
Malware is not one specific thing, but refers to an endless number of programs that can be downloaded to your computer without your knowledge. These programs are designed to steal your personal information and use it for some unknown entity’s benefit.
There are some common signs that a computer has been infected with malware, but the most prominent sign is usually that the computer becomes very slow. You may notice that the computer takes an inordinate amount of time to start up or to open programs.
The Federal Trade Commission maintains an extensive and constantly updated list of email/phishing scams that you may encounter on the internet. This is a great warehouse of information that offers both text and video explanations, in English and Spanish, of all the currently known ways that scammers are trying to break into your computer and steal your personal information.
Some of the more convincing scams can first involve a phone call. I recently received a phone call from a man who said he was calling from what sounded like Microsoft. He told me that my computer had been identified as corrupt. He explained that he needed remote access to my computer to fix this “very serious problem — that is not just affecting you, but is interfering with the mainframe.”
This sounded very serious, indeed.
Although I knew this was a scam, I was curious and asked him to spell the name of his company. He quickly spelled this: “MICROSOF.”
I declined his offer of “help” and hung up. But I immediately thought of my grandmother. I knew that this type of call could result in her allowing access to her computer. These scammers need technologically confused victims to succeed.
Microsoft has addressed this particular scam on their website. They point out that Microsoft will never contact you via phone asking for access to your computer.
So, what can be done once your computer (or your grandmother’s) has been compromised?
The first step is to change every password that has been stored in the computer. And it is important to make sure that there is an up-to-date antivirus protection program installed and running. If you believe that someone is currently remotely accessing your computer, it is vital to disconnect the computer from the internet immediately.
The FTC also recommends that you file a complaint at email@example.com to report suspicious emails and calls.
I think it is important to note that the internet and all its components can be mystifying at times, and a person’s struggle with it is not a reflection on their intelligence. Throughout my life I have looked to my grandmother for strength, advice and stability. She is a true matriarch in every sense of the word. I cherish my time with her and it angers me that there are so many scams out there, not just on the internet, that are targeting the elderly.
If truth be told, we are all fighting a constant battle against internet treachery. The methods of internet scammers are always changing; so maintaining an awareness of their evolution is vital. To stay on top of this problem, I do recommend perusing the Federal Trade Commission’s library of scams.
These short videos are informative, entertaining and interactive. I have encouraged my grandmother to watch some of these, and she has been amazed by all the ways internet invaders can reach into her computer. And each day, she is becoming more tech-savvy and a more confident internet user. For a lady born long before the age of the internet, this is a big accomplishment.
You’ve come a long way, Marcy.