Online banking in the COVID-19 era can be a double-edged sword for older adults.
On the plus side, handling financial transactions online can be a godsend: It means seniors don’t have to trudge to their local brick-and-mortar branch, interact in close proximity with others, and potentially put themselves at higher risk for the coronavirus. Since the start of the pandemic, 82% of seniors are using online banking more frequently, and 55% are using mobile banking more often, according to a recent study from digital payments platform Zelle.
But alongside the convenience is the risk of phishing scams, identity theft, data breaches and other perils. After all, just think of the ideal mark for an online scammer: Someone with significant assets, who's not very familiar with the latest technology and may even be starting to experience some cognitive decline.
The average loss for older adults falling victim to financial exploitation amounts to around $34,200, according to a study by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of tech tools and other resources to help safeguard you and your loved ones' financial lives online — which, combined with a healthy dose of skepticism and some common-sense defenses, can protect older Americans in a rapidly evolving online world. For example, Zelle is partnering with Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) to make free online classes available at SeniorPlanet.org. These e-learning forums cover basic issues like digital banking, online bill pay, and moving money between accounts.
“The best way to guard against bad things happening online, is to fight fire with fire and use technology to protect yourself,” says Liz Loewy, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Elder Abuse Unit and co-founder of fraud detection firm EverSafe.
“It can seem daunting to seniors, but the benefits outweigh the pitfalls, as long as you’re careful,” Loewy says.
Here are some tips from the experts:
Monitor, monitor, monitor
Fraudsters thrive when people aren't on top of what’s happening in their accounts. If scammers gain access to a credit card, say, they will start off with a small charge to test the waters, and if that's successful, keep charging more and more.
So look at your statements frequently, keep an eye out for unfamiliar vendors, and dig deeper if the monthly total seems higher than it should be. These days every financial institution has some level of security, boosted by artificial intelligence, to evaluate transaction history and flag unlikely events.
But you can do even more. Check your credit report occasionally, to see if anyone is using your Social Security number to open accounts in your name, or rack up debts without your knowledge (visit AnnualCreditReport.com to do so for free). A service like EverSafe can monitor your financial life across multiple platforms — banks, credit cards, investment accounts, credit data — and deliver customized alerts to your inbox.
Get a team together
One way to protect yourself is to have multiple sets of eyes watching over your financial life. That way, if something strange is flagged — like large unlikely purchases, or transactions abroad — immediate action can be taken to shut it down.
Consider allowing more than one individual access to that data. Unfortunately, lot of elder financial abuse comes at the hands of caregivers and relatives. But combine a family member with a professional like a CPA or financial planner, and you can feel more comfortable that your interests are being looked out for.
There might be some stigma for seniors in opening up their financial lives for others to see. But don’t think of it as an indication of decline; just think of it as an additional layer of security, which can be useful for people of any age.
Only deal with trusted partners
If you're on your own bank’s website, or dealing with a known platform like Zelle or Venmo, that’s one thing. But if you are ever taken “out of channel” online — for example, if a pop-up ad for charitable donations takes you somewhere unfamiliar, or a random emailer is inquiring about your stimulus check, be very wary indeed.
“Only pay people you know and trust,” says Donna Turner, Zelle’s chief operations officer. “Banks will never come to you and ask for your personal information. If you get an email or text or phone call like that, it’s a huge red flag and you need to end the interaction.”
Get familiar with common scams
There are any number of ways that scammers can try to elicit personal financial information. It might be an email pretending that there was a problem with your account and asking you to provide your login and password. Or it might be a fake ad for personal protective gear, a new scam that is proving popular in the age of COVID-19. Another one is the popular ‘Grandparent’ scam, when fraudsters pretend to be a grandchild who is in trouble and in need of quick cash.
The more seniors know the classic scams, the more they can have their radar up at all times. A good roundup can be found in these consumer resources, part of the “Safe Banking For Seniors” program from the American Bankers Association.
“There’s a lot of denial out there,” says EverSafe’s Loewy, who observed during her time at the Manhattan DA’s office that the typical scam goes on for about 14 months. “People never think they’re going to be financially exploited in life, until it happens to them."
“Taking steps to protect yourself isn’t a sign of weakness," Loewy adds. "It will keep you financially healthy.”
More from Money: