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Can tech help protect aging brains from online scams?
May 23, 2019

Can tech help protect aging brains from online scams?

Software that better screens for fraud might help.

We’re all being hit constantly with spam callers, online phishing attacks, scams and other fraud attempts. And there’s medical evidence that older people might be more vulnerable to these attacks, even if they’re otherwise healthy. Molly Wood talked with David Brancaccio, host of “Marketplace Morning Report,” who has been reporting on how our defenses get weaker as our brains age. He said some researchers are figuring out exactly how technology is so successfully used to scam people and how that same tech could be used to protect them. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: I just spoke with a researcher at the University of Florida, Natalie Ebner from the Department of Psychology there. She and her collaborator Daniela Oliveira, a computer engineering professor, want to know who is especially susceptible to scams and who is not. They sign up older people for a study, put in a special browser on their stuff and then they creep in fake phishing emails to their test subjects and they track who falls for the fake scams. Here’s Dr. Ebner.

Natalie Ebner: An almost majority of our sample, 43%, fell for those phishing emails. This included young and older adults, but it was especially the older women who showed a particular vulnerability to those phishing emails. And, most importantly, there was very little awareness of the risks.

Molly Wood: That’s terrifying. So they turned out to be vulnerable, but did not think that they were vulnerable? And then tell me more about this 43% of the people who fell for this the most.

Brancaccio: Yeah, this is the key, right? Who might be extra susceptible so that we can help them protect themselves. It’s not really their general health. It’s not just the older you get. One interesting finding here: Older people with what researchers called “negative affect” were extra susceptible to online scams. So what’s that mean? Well, they tested to see if people were having a bad day. Those are the people who seem to be prone to falling victim to these online scams. The people saying, “Oh, what a beautiful morning” were more immune.

Wood: So tell me more about Dr. Ebner’s research. It sounds like this is developing toward, potentially, a product that could help people, right?

Brancaccio: Yeah. Here’s Dr. Ebner again on a future product.

Ebner: Our idea is to use profile information about the computer use, combine this with information we have about fraud indicators in emails, like how dangerous is an email, what kind of techniques does it use, and combine this in a tool which we plan to call Merlin.

Brancaccio: Merlin, like the magician who serves the king. It would serve you, maybe in a couple years. They’re working on perhaps a browser plug-in which learns your deal and then flags sketchy stuff with highlights. Could be bigger fonts suddenly or alarms that go off, way beyond what we currently consider spam filters.

Related Links: More insight from Molly Wood

David and I talked about the idea of a cybersecurity product that could potentially detect fraud or phishing attempts and warn people about them. (We had a little chuckle about how we each spent something like four hours doing cybersecurity training here at work … and we’d love a browser plug-in instead.) Because anyone can fall for these attempts, and cybersecurity threats are getting way more sophisticated and common.

The city of Baltimore has been struggling to recover from a ransomware attack almost two weeks ago. Hackers took control of city services like utilities payment systems, surveillance cameras and its entire real estate processing department and refused to release them unless the city paid a ransom.

Most of the time the attacks are the result of successful phishing scams or social engineering. A report in Wired this week said both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee still have major cybersecurity issues, and so do European political parties.

On Tuesday, a school in Ohio had to send all its students home because of a malware infection that crippled the school’s technology. Salesforce had the worst outage in its history late last week.

You’re getting the picture.

In some ways, we’re all losing the battle against hackers, and over in Washington, the Department of Homeland Security is apparently asking some of its cybersecurity employees to volunteer to relocate to the U.S.-Mexico border to deal with border security.

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