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Protecting the elderly from cyber attacks

Last year, consultancy firm Deloitte released a report identifying countries most vulnerable to cyber attacks in the Asia-Pacific region based on prevalence of Internet use and mobile subscribers. Singapore ranked fifth on the index, and — together with South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan — was dubbed a member of the “Cyber Five”.

Last year, consultancy firm Deloitte released a report identifying countries most vulnerable to cyber attacks in the Asia-Pacific region based on prevalence of Internet use and mobile subscribers. Singapore ranked fifth on the index, and — together with South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan — was dubbed a member of the “Cyber Five”.

As Singapore continues its push towards becoming a Smart Nation, increased bandwidth capacity also means that individuals inevitably face greater exposure to cyber attacks as technology plays an increasingly central role in everyday life.

One demographic that is most vulnerable to cyber crime is the elderly. One obvious reason is that they are generally not as technically savvy and may not be as comfortable in the online environment. They are also attractive targets to cyber criminals as most tend to have more wealth or a larger “nest egg”. Senior citizens, especially those in Singapore, also typically own their homes.

According to a 2012 study by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the United States Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation, seniors are not only more likely to be targeted by fraudsters, but also tend to lose money once targeted. The study revealed that those over 65 are 35 per cent more likely to have lost money on a financial scam than others in their 40s.

The growing trend among older Singaporeans in the use of smartphones and Internet simultaneously increases their exposure to cyber predation. People aged 50 and above registered the highest year-on-year increase in Internet use across age groups, according to the Infocomm Development Authority’s (IDA) Annual Survey on Infocomm Usage in Households 2014.

Among those aged 50 to 59, 75 per cent surfed the Web regularly while 31 per cent among those in their 60s did so. Ironically, our seniors’ earnestness to get more plugged in to keep in touch with the family, coupled with more leisure time to spend on the Internet, may result in their being disproportionately affected by cyber crime.


It turns out that seniors worldwide are quite alike in the type of cyber crimes they fall victim to. Thus a good first step towards promoting better cyber safety among the elderly may well be to draw attention to the scams that older people find hard to resist:

• Seniors are particularly likely to fall for schemes in which the crooks claim to be government officials. A 2011 report published in the US lists impersonation scams among the top cyber crimes targeting seniors.

Fraudsters prey on older victims’ steadfast trust in public institutions to steal personal information, usually in the form of emails or calls that falsely claim to come from a government agency. They lure victims to visit a website that directs the user to disclose personal information or download malicious apps that steal phone data. In Singapore, scammers are known to have impersonated officers from the Singapore Police Force, Singapore Civil Defence Force, Ministry of Manpower, and even courier companies such as SingPost.

• Elderly find cyber romance hard to resist. With changing social dynamics, seniors increasingly live alone. Sweetheart scams targeting the elderly not only prey on their victims’ sense of loneliness, but also exploit the huge void that may be left through events such as children leaving home, divorce or death of a spouse.

Often, scammers persuade the victim to take the conversation off-line after establishing a bond, thereby eluding safeguards set by the legal online dating sites. Latest data show that Singaporeans lost about S$7.5 million to Internet love scams from January to April last year, while love-struck victims in Malaysia lost about RM71 million (S$24 million) in 2015.

• Seniors are tempted by work-from-home opportunities and cheaper medications. The idea of having a “second career” with flexible working hours appeals to retirees. Victims in work-from-home scams pay a large one-time fee to set up their own online businesses that usually never materialise, or are recruited as “mules” to unknowingly launder money. Such scams not only hurt the wallet but may also result in the victims facing criminal charges.

There are also online pharmacy scams involving the sale of prescription medications and anti-ageing products. Seniors are especially vulnerable because many live with chronic conditions and rely on expensive prescription medications. The convenience of shopping online and the absence of checks for valid prescriptions further add to the allure of these illegal Internet pharmacies.

In 2015, the Cyber Security Agency was set up to work with various sectors to ensure Singapore stays resilient against cyber attacks. Under the National Cybercrime Action Plan launched last July, seniors have been identified as a group that is particularly vulnerable to cyber crime.

To educate and empower seniors to stay safe in cyber space, the Singapore Government aims to raise their level of cyber crime awareness through engagement platforms such as the IDA’s annual Silver IT Fest. There are also plans to customise outreach efforts and content to suit the profile of different age groups, which is crucial considering that the extent and consequences of cyber crime victimisation may be different for older people.

Cyber scams may sometimes go unreported by older victims because they may not know who to report them to, are ashamed at having been scammed, or do not even realise they have been scammed.

In such situations, families and friends have an important role to play, be it in helping seniors to better recognise common online scams and red flags, or simply spending some time to help walk them through their new devices.


Joelle Fong is a Senior Research Fellow at the Insurance Risk & Finance Research Centre (IRFRC) at Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School. She has published widely on topics related to population ageing and retirement. The IRFRC leads several projects on cyber risk management in collaboration with industry partners, academic experts, and the Singapore government.

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