Parenting Your Parents on Phishing and Identity Theft

HackingBy Thomas Richardson

Editor: I’ll add some of my own advice in teal.

ID theft is up. An estimated 13.1 million Americans were victims of identity theft-related fraud in 2013, according to CNBC. That’s up more than 500,000 people from 2012. Predators in nature, identity thieves like to target the aged and weak, singling them out as easy-to-ambush prey. And, according to the FBI, the elderly do tend to have certain attributes that make them especially choice targets for con artists. For example, senior citizens are usually more trusting than younger generations and fall easier for identity theft scams, such as phishing. Many seniors also have a substantial nest egg saved up, making them even more attractive as potential victims.

If you have elderly relatives, educate them about the many types of identity theft scams, especially phishing. Otherwise, they could become victims of identity theft and even potentially lose their entire life savings to these crooks.


Microsoft points out the definition of phishing scams: attempts to fool a victim into revealing personal or financial information about them (or clicking on a link). These attempts typically are in the form of an email, but sometimes done by phone as well. Most phishing scams appear as if they are coming from legitimate companies, such as PayPal, or institutions, such as the IRS or banks. Phishing attempts play on the fears of their victims in hopes that the person will give up financial or personal information.

For example, according to the IRS, a phishing scammer might create an email that appears to come from the IRS, demanding a victim send important personal information if they want to avoid a fine, or if they want to receive their tax refunds. Unfortunately, trusting seniors tend to fall for these types of phishing scams, which can leave them vulnerable to identity theft.

Seniors are also susceptible to these types of crimes because they often question their own memory. So while a senior’s adult child would know not to respond to a bogus email about a delivery of an item they never ordered, an elderly person might panic and believe that they have forgotten purchasing something and click on a link.

Taking Care of Your Parents

Yes, the tables have been reversed and, more often than not, you — as the adult child — will be the one who has to play the role of guardian to your elderly parents. It will also be you who has to teach them how to avoid being scammed or taken advantage of.

Start, first, by educating them on the idea of phishing and the importance of not opening or responding to emails they did not solicit themselves. If they have a question on a particular email, have them call you before they open it. Remember to also stress the importance of being wary of emails that appear suspicious even if people they know are sending them.

Tell your senior that many phishing scams try to get them to click on a link or attached .zip file, which can then install a virus or malware to track keystrokes, capture passwords, or send emails under their personal ID. That means just because an email seems come from a trusted source, unexpected .zip files and links should always be treated with suspicion, because their system may have been infected with a virus. The scam might look official correspondence with a recognizable logo, but the link they want you to click on may send you to a URL in some other country.

How can you tell? Most email systems will display the link itself when you mouse over it. Beware if it says something like instead of or instead of 

Research it and Report it. Reputable companies know who you are and include identifying information in their email, such as “account ending in 4372.” They almost never ask for personal or financial information or include .zip attachments. If anything looks suspicious, give them a call or check their website for how to report a phishing scam. You can then forward the suspicious email to them, and to federal authorities at

Monitor Them

If you don’t live near your elderly parents, it may be wise to put them in the hands of a reputable identity theft protection company such as LifeLock, which has been in business since 2005. Even if you live near and can monitor your parents closely, it is a good idea to employ a company to monitor their credit. This is especially important if your parents are showing any signs of senility or problems with their memories that could be caused by medication.

As you learn of new scams, remember to educate your parents about each one, as crooks, unfortunately, are always trying to change their methods of operation. In these days and times, it pays to be vigilant and proactive, rather than hoping nothing will go wrong. It is always much easier to thwart identity theft crimes than it is to clean up the mess that is created once your parent’s financial and personal information have been compromised.

About the Author

Thomas a is a copy editor and freelance writer living in Maryland.