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Published in Economic Development
Residents at Holland Home facilities in the Grand Rapids area have been receiving training in cybersecurity protection measures. Residents at Holland Home facilities in the Grand Rapids area have been receiving training in cybersecurity protection measures. COURTESY PHOTO

Senior living facilities prepare residents for cybersecurity threats

BY Sunday, October 24, 2021 04:30pm

Technology proved to be a blessing for residents in West Michigan senior care facilities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. At times, it was the only avenue for these individuals to remain in contact with friends, family and loved ones.

But the good comes with some bad.

“The benefits of technology far outweigh the potential negative encounters they might have,” said Jessie Riley, resident technology manager for Grand Rapids-based Holland Home. “This doesn’t negate the fact that those (threats) are still there.”

As the pandemic accelerated technology adoption among the elderly demographic, some area caretakers couldn’t ignore the fact that this group is historically most susceptible to online scams.

The FBI reported that its Internet Crime Complaint Center received a total of 791,790 complaints that led to losses of around $4.1 billion in 2020. And those were only the instances of fraud that went reported by its victims — many are left unreported.

The statistics go on to show that 28 percent of the total fraud losses were sustained by victims over the age of 60, which equates to roughly $1 billion.

In light of this clear sign of vulnerability, some area senior care organizations are doing their part to educate seniors on basic cybersecurity and responsible online habits.

Resources at the ready

Holland Home, which operates the Breton Woods and Raybrook senior care and assisted living facilities, is one such organization. Riley said Holland Home promotes technology education and engagement among its residents while helping them to address the potential pitfalls that come with technology usage.

“We want to increase residents’ digital literacy and their exposure to technology, and when we do, there is an increase in confidence and comfort level,” Riley said. “They become more aware as they navigate through technology.”

Residents at Holland Home’s independent living facilities have a couple of ways to pose technology-related questions and address what they consider to be suspicious activity, including one-on-one appointments.

“It gives us the opportunity to work one-on-one with them, which we know — just based on research and our own experience — that it is honestly their preferred method of learning and the most successful,” Riley said. “When they learn from someone they’re comfortable with, it drives up their overall confidence.”

Scams and threats range greatly in nature, but the end result is usually the same: Tricking victims into sending money, often in the form of gift cards.

“We see a lot,” Riley said. “Older adults in general, 60-plus years of age or more, are five times more likely to be targeted and fall victim to scams. Oftentimes, those communications come in the form of email or phone.” 

Hackers have been known to pose as the IRS or someone from Medicare to assist with open enrollment. Another common trick is when hackers act as a member of Microsoft support and trick a victim into thinking their computer or device is corrupt and they must pay to remedy the problem.

While Riley hasn’t witnessed any devastating scams within her community, minor occurrences tend to crop up “a couple times a month.”

“Even if no money is involved — or it’s a couple dollars — I think it’s devastating to their confidence,” Riley said.

Grandma, grandpa and GranPad

Sunset Senior Communities, which operates senior care comunities in West Michigan, works to insulate independent living residents from potential cyber threats through the use of GranPads.

Purchased and provided by a resident’s family member, GrandPads are secure tablet computers tailored to elderly individuals that feature apps to provide a user with everything from music and games to a video chat feature.

“They can use the internet but it’s pretty protected,” said Madeline Heethuis, a recreational therapist at The Manor & Villages, a Sunset community in Georgetown Township. “A lot of them don’t want to go on the internet or have a use for it. They can get all the news that they would need just on a little app icon. The family can set it up so it’s tailored. It’s just a little safer that way.”

The Manor & Villages also offers its Senior Scholastics educational program, which kicks off this fall. The series includes a class on scams and threats to watch out for on the internet.

When a scam does hit a member of the community, Sunset is quick to leverage its resources to inform all residents and their families.

“I’m really impressed with what we do here because we have so many people on our campus. They do a really good job of making sure that everyone is educated and guarding against (threats),” Heethuis said.

Jennifer Fiebelkorn, a principal with Plante Moran PLLC that specializes in cybersecurity, also acknowledged that seniors are more vulnerable to various cyber threats. She applauded the efforts of senior care facilities to address the problem with their residents.

“I would say the most common threats related to senior citizens is ransomware and identity theft, when (hackers) happen to get control of that device or computer and the individual needs to pay money to get that information back,” Fiebelkorn said. 

When it comes to identifying those threats, training does help, but intuition also goes a long way.

“I would say trust your instinct,” Fiebelkorn said. “If you get an email and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is weird,’ that’s really the first telltale sign that you can’t teach — it’s an intuition on why something seems weird.”

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