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Internet opens new avenues for con artists seeking to bilk the elderly

Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor

Released 3/23/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As more elderly Americans use the Internet, the potential for Internet fraud that targets the elderly grows, according to an article in the latest issue of the Elder Law Journal.

Eric L. Carlson, an editor at the journal, writes that the Internet allows con artists to think – and act – globally. Compared with scams that use the mails or telephone, the Internet opens new markets for criminals by greatly multiplying the potential number of victims as well as reducing the cost with which the scam can be carried out.

For example, with the aid of easily obtainable software, con artists can cloak themselves in secrecy and launch online scams that spread rapidly online and then disappear. “Using anonymous e-mails, short-lived Web sites and falsified domain name registrations, many fraud operators are able to strike quickly, victimize thousands of consumers in a short period of time and disappear without a trace,” Carlson wrote.

Effective law enforcement against Internet fraud is made difficult because many of the perpetrators conduct all or part of their operations overseas, rendering them legally and practically beyond the reach of the Federal Trade Commission and U.S. courts.

The elderly are natural targets for some of the most common fraudulent schemes that deal with “miracle” medical products and “too-good-to-be-true” investment scams, Carlson wrote in the journal, which is published by the University of Illinois College of Law.

Currently, about one in three elderly Americans go online, often to access medical and financial information. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that seniors now depend more on the Internet than on books and newspapers as a source for health information.

The elderly are especially vulnerable to “phishing,” or forged e-mail messages aimed at stealing credit-card account numbers, passwords or Social Security numbers. Often these mass mailings appear to be from a bank or government agency and use scare tactics, such as threats to close an account, in order to panic victims into disclosing personal information to a fake Web site.

“Phishing scams are constantly evolving to become more sophisticated and effective,” according to the Illinois scholar. Investigators report that e-mails sent as part of a phishing scam typically yield a positive response rate of between 1 and 5 percent. “This statistic is staggering considering a spammer’s ability to send out literally hundreds of thousands of e-mails in a matter of minutes,” Carlson added.

Phishing is just one method of engaging in online identity theft, in which a victim’s identifying information can be fraudulently used to run up bills, open credit-card accounts or even obtain a home loan in the victim’s name.

The elderly make appealing targets to scam artists because they have greater assets than other age groups and are less aware of the dangers of online predators. “Despite the grave risk that identity theft poses to the elderly, one survey determined that more than one-third of adults over 60 did not know what identity theft is,” the article said.

Given the problems with legal enforcement, Carlson said that educational programs could help combat Internet fraud. The Federal Trade Commission, for example, maintains a database to track and prevent online fraud.

The author recommends that considerably more resources be marshaled for educational efforts. These could include classes sponsored by community colleges, nursing homes and business groups that teach older Americans how to use the Internet safely and reduce their vulnerability to phishers and purveyors of worthless health products.