Online scams and the elderly
We who were born in the age of passbooks and real bank tellers will never feel at home in the world of digital banking and automated teller machines (ATMs). This is not a Luddite resistance to all labor-saving machinery. It proceeds rather from a general insecurity we feel when navigating the virtual space created by computers, smartphones, and the internet.
Those who venture into cyberspace for the chance to reconnect with long-lost friends, relatives, and classmates tend to confine their presence in that space to a Facebook account. In all other things, especially where it concerns their lifetime savings, they prefer to deal in person with their bank manager or favorite teller.
But, alas, transactions essential to everyday life have become increasingly automated and/or conducted online—and there we easily lose our bearings.
It is difficult to describe the distress we experience when, in the middle of a task, we no longer know what to do next. In that state of utter frustration, we gladly surrender ourselves to the gracious offer of assistance by another human, albeit a stranger. In doing so, we unwittingly enter uncharted space in which most scams take place. We find ourselves being led into performing online actions whose full meaning we barely understand.
“It’s as if I was hypnotized, and all my critical faculties were put to sleep,” a close relative told me after her two bank accounts were emptied by a woman purporting to be a customer relations officer of the bank in which she had kept her hard-earned savings. “I was just so happy to find somebody who was willing to stay with me for hours on the phone to guide me through the maze of digital banking.”
It all started with a phone call from that “nice” lady supposedly from the bank. “She said that as a preferred client of the bank, I could redeem my accumulated credit card reward points by converting them into cash, to be transferred to my GCash account, if I had one, or to my existing bank accounts.”
The lady then offered to guide her prey, a senior citizen in her late 60s, through the process. This would entail, she told her, opening a digital bank account through which the client could access all her accounts with the bank. For this, the lady caller, supposedly a representative from the bank, needed to get the client’s account numbers, user IDs, and passwords, and, later, the system-generated OTP or one-time passwords that would be sent to the client’s mobile phone to confirm the transaction.
It is true that banks have issued advisories telling their clients not to share such information, particularly passwords, with anyone. They warn them against clicking links embedded in emails and text messages purporting to be from the bank. When in doubt, clients are advised to call the manager or visit the bank in person. At the height of the pandemic, however, it wasn’t always easy to do that.
Online scammers have so methodically mapped out the process involved in a typical digital banking transaction that they can pinpoint exactly where an intervention by an outside party can plausibly be made. For people who are familiar with the way the digital world works, it may be hard to imagine how anyone could be so trusting as to share sensitive data like usernames and passwords with a total stranger.
They have no idea of the kinds of challenges the elderly face when they find themselves in virtual space. I have used personal computers and smartphones since these were first introduced. The complex ways of the virtual world fascinate me as a sociologist. Yet not being a digital native, I cannot presume to know to what possible uses information shared online can be put. With every passing year, I find myself painfully taking more time to complete online transactions, such as buying an airline ticket or booking a hotel room.
I have realized that the kind of alertness one develops in the physical world is not always adequate for the less familiar cues one encounters in digital space. As a defense mechanism, I have learned to automatically delete any text or email I get that advertises anything or calls my attention to a purchase order I don’t remember having made. Quite often, I get a text or an email telling me that my bank account has been blocked because of suspicious transactions, and to unblock it, I must report it to a customer relations officer at a given mobile number. With the swipe of a finger, I consign such messages to the virtual dustbin.
But scammers are getting better at their malevolent craft. As Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen recently warned, a growing number of these unsolicited messages are now personally addressed to their recipients, attesting to the existence of a widespread data leak somewhere. The inclusion of one’s name adds a touch of authenticity to these messages and, whether one likes it or not, draws one’s attention.
Like my relative who never recovered the money that scammers took out of her bank accounts, another friend, a senior citizen in her 80s, also fell victim a few months earlier to another online “hypnotist” who offered to help her restore access to her supposedly blocked accounts. She, too, lost hundreds of thousands in precious savings. But after reporting the crime to the bank, the police, and the NBI, both would rather forget that it happened to them. The thieves have not only stolen their savings; they have clearly also taken away a huge chunk of their self-confidence.
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