How to Talk to Older Relatives About Scams and Cybersecurity

Have you ever had someone try to explain corporate taxes to you, or felt utterly lost when a friend tells you how “easy” it is to replace the head gasket on your car? That’s the bewildering feeling many of our older relatives experience when confronted with the digital world.



Some have grown up with the internet at their fingertips, but others, particularly our older relatives, find themselves in unfamiliar territory. So, let’s have an honest discussion on how we can guide our loved ones through the maze of cyber threats.

Why It’s Important to Understand Cybersecurity Threats

Scams and threats have always existed. From the snake oil salesman to con artists, history is rife with individuals who prey on the vulnerable.

With the dawn of the digital age, these threats have found a new playground. Cyber threats on the elderly are increasing every year, and are becoming more sophisticated. Our loved ones, often unfamiliar with the intricacies of the online world, are often prime targets.

In a recent FBI news article, it was reported that over $3.1 billion a year is lost by over 60s to scams in 2022. They face a barrage of deceptive tactics, from “prize winnings” to fake antivirus, all the way to crypto and investment scams. The fallout is not just financial, the emotional toll can be equally devastating.

In this increasingly digital world, the need to safeguard our elderly relatives and friends has never been more pressing.

Understanding the Generational Tech Gap

a group of 5 people sitting against a wall with a laptop of varying ages

As technology engulfs our modern lives, it’s important to remember this generational gap leaves some feeling stranded in a sea of information that is difficult to comprehend. Below are some concepts that can feel very foreign to our beloved elderly:

  1. Technical Jargon: The digital world is full of some unique vocabulary. Terms such as “VPN”, “malware” and “phishing” are second nature to digital natives, but to older adults, they can sound like an alien language. It’s not a matter of intelligence or capability, but experience and exposure. Older folks might grapple to understand the basics as many of the elderly didn’t grow up “speaking” this digital dialect.
  2. Emotional Barriers: Technology evolves at a rapid pace, and the speed of progress can be very overwhelming. For those who didn’t grow up in the tech-savvy era, there can be a sense of perpetually lagging behind. Struggling to keep up can create a daunting and emotional wall, making technology seem not just challenging—but very intimidating.
  3. Trust and its Role in Cybersecurity: The cornerstone that defined the dealings of older generations was trust. Agreements were sealed in handshakes, and a person’s word held immense value.

Trustworthiness is always commendable, but in the digital realm, it can become a vulnerability. The faceless nature of the internet allows deceitful individuals to exploit inherent trust. This can lead older persons into potential traps. In the digital age, it’s not always about just being cautious, but redefining what trust is, and isn’t.

How to Teach Older Relatives About Cybersecurity

As members of the tech generation, we’re probably used to acting as tech support for our elderly loved ones—but we can’t always be there.

Imagine you have just learned about a new text messaging scam targeting retirees. You immediately think of your Aunt May, or Grandpa Joe, both of whom you know are happily exploring the digital realm. You’re also aware they’re doing so with little knowledge of its pitfalls.

It’s essential to broach the subject of cybersecurity with them, but how do you start? How do you raise awareness of this new scam, or threat, without sounding patronizing, or causing undue alarm? The way we approach this is as crucial as the message itself.

1. Choosing the Right Time and Place

As they say, timing is everything. Initiating a conversation during a family reunion, or at a noisy restaurant won’t do any justice to the importance of the topic.

Choose a quiet, serene setting, perhaps over a cup of tea, or during a walk in the park. Having a one-on-one setting, free of distractions will add a calm, intimate touch. This will make it easier to convey the seriousness of the topic, without inducing panic or stress.

2. Being Relatable

By starting with relatable anecdotes, you ground the experience in reality—ensuring it doesn’t come across as a distant and irrelevant lecture.

“Did you hear about Mrs. Thompson next door?” or “I saw a news article recently about a retired accountant who lost money”. Sharing stories, especially about people in their demographic, or widely reported incidents helps put things in perspective. It will reinforce the truth: cybersecurity threats are real, widespread, and can affect anyone, regardless of how tech-savvy they happen to be.

Show them they’re not alone in navigating digital challenges. Show empathy and understanding. Most importantly, convey the message that there are ways to protect themselves.

The Core Cybersecurity Components to Discuss

A hacker stealing a victim's details

The internet can sometimes be compared to a bustling city. There are beautiful parks to explore, stores to visit, and delightful conversations to be had with strangers.

Yet, just like every city, there are alleys you wouldn’t wander down alone without caution.

To help our older loved ones explore safely, here are some “neighborhood guidelines” you can share with them.

1. Password Management

We all know someone who keeps all their passwords written down in a notebook, or worse still, uses the same password everywhere. When explaining the importance of password management, you can easily imagine passwords as the keys to your home.

Just as you wouldn’t use a flimsy lock, it’s essential to have robust, unique passwords for online accounts. You may say something like: “Think of it like having a different key for every room in your house. It’s a tad more to remember, but it keeps each space safe.” Introduce them to password managers. These are like a digital keychain, holding all those keys securely, so they only have to remember one main key.

2. Online Scams and Phishing

If something is too good to be true, it probably is. These are words rang true back in their time, and they’re just as relevant today. We’ve all received those unwanted letters or calls, promising unexpected prizes. Online, these come in the form of emails and messages, often with a sense of urgency.

“Remember how we’d raise an eyebrow at a stranger being overly friendly?” This could be something to say that makes this threat more relatable.

It’s also important at this moment to offer your assistance. While it’s easy to merely tell someone not to click on unfamiliar links, scams, and in particular phishing scams are very good at appearing convincing.

Let them know that it’s ok to forward anything to you if they have a slight suspicion, or are unfamiliar with what they have received. When it comes to online banking and cryptocurrency, it might be best for some more tech-savvy eyes to gaze over it first.

3. Being Careful With Social Media

Social media platforms are a little like community gatherings. They’re full of friends and family, but it’s also open to strangers. Pose a question such as “You wouldn’t share your family album or personal stories with someone you’ve just met at the grocery store, would you?”

In the same way, let them know it’s best to be selective about what they share online. The smallest details, like a pet’s name, favorite vacation spot, or a post about an anniversary are all clues to their identity. They can be used to guess security questions and even facilitate identity theft.

4. Software Updates

Security patches and updates are an easy one to explain to our elderly. You can compare their digital devices to a car that needs regular servicing to keep them running safely and smoothly.

Let them know that new threats are always emerging and that these updates are there to protect against them.

Additional Resources for Elderly Cybersecurity Education

an older man sitting with a smartphone and headphones

Cybersecurity is a truly massive topic, so don’t feel the need to explain absolutely everything as it could be overwhelming.

Here are some friendly resources you can send to your elderly loved ones for them to read and understand at their own pace:

  1. Stop. Think. Connect: This comprehensive guide provides an overview, highlighting key areas of focus and best practices.
  2. Cybersecurity For Older Americans: Diving a bit deeper, this resource offers insights into common online threats faced by older folk and provides actionable steps to stay safe.

Keep these in mind if you want to teach your older relatives about the dangers of the digital world.

Stepping Forward Together in the Digital Age

Empowering our elderly loved ones in the digital age isn’t just about teaching them how to use a device but ensuring they can do so safely. Let’s all help to make the online world safer for them by bridging the generational gap and offering continual support.

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