Online Elder Abuse Is On the Rise. Why Isn’t It Being Reported?

Melissa Sakow, Director of Communications, Older Adults Technology Services (OATS)

As internet access expands across the country, opportunities for cybercrime and fraud have increased as well, especially those targeting older adults. Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that almost 50,000 people over 60 lost $342.5 million in 2017 to internet fraud and scams; the FBI’s IC3 2018 Internet Crime Report also shows that tech support fraud is a growing area of crime, primarily targeting people over 60, with losses totaling $39 million. 

And that’s just what’s been reported. 

June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, and organizations across the globe are bringing attention to the ways that older adults specifically can become victims of abuse, from online fraud to physical harm. The US Department of Justice estimates that at least 1 out of 10 adults over the age of 65 experiences some kind of abuse each year, but figures on the number of reported cases can vary. In a study from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, only 1 out of nearly 24 elder abuse cases were actually reported to authorities— and that dropped to only 1 out of 44 for cases of financial abuse, including cyber-exploitation. 

As activist Ashton Applewhite points out, elder abuse—and our response to it—is rooted in something deeper: “Unlike domestic violence or child abuse, we don’t talk about [elder abuse] much. Neither do many victims who are embarrassed by their vulnerability, ashamed to ask for help and worst of all, think they may not deserve it. That is internalized ageism at work.”

Older adults often don’t want to tell a family member if they suspect they’ve become a victim online: it’s embarrassing, and some might fear losing their independence. Supporting older adults in avoiding abuse has to begin from an assumption of their agency, not victimhood. The more we perpetuate a cycle of thinking about older adults as unsavvy victims, the less likely seniors are to report the crimes, and the less likely they are to get justice.

With that in mind, here are some practical resources that people of any age can consult to help spot and prevent cyber abuse of older people, and some support for how an older adult can report it should it happen to them. 

  • One of the most common forms of digital elder abuse is internet fraud, including phishing and financial scams. The free program Senior Planet offers technology training classes that emphasize safety online, from protecting your information to spotting fake news and avoiding P2P scams. 
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a “Money Smart for Older Adults” toolkit that helps older adults, family caregivers and others prevent, recognize, and report exploitation, including computer and internet scams.
  • The National Adult Protection Services website features an interactive map—click on your state to find agencies you can contact to report any type of elder abuse.
  • The National Center on Elder Abuse has a good list of trainings, events, and resources on identifying elder abuse of any kind, as well as instructions on what to report when making an abuse complaint.
  • You can also report Internet crime directly to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center
  • The NCEA co-sponsors World Elder Abuse Awareness Day; the WEAAD microsite’s list of tools and tips includes a helpful guide for identifying scams of all kinds, and ways communities can build up a culture that supports scam prevention.