Protecting Patients From Cybercrime: Advice for Clinicians

Seniors are increasingly targeted in ever-sophisticated online financial cybercrimes, but mental health clinicians can play a key role in protecting their patients.

Elizabeth J. Santos, MD, clinical chief, Division of Geriatric Mental Health & Memory Care, and associate professor of psychiatry, neurology & medicine, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, New York, provided tips to attendees of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2024 Annual Meeting presented on May 7, 2024, and elaborated on these for Medscape Medical News.

Cybercrimes targeting seniors are common. A 2023 University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found 75% of adults aged 50-80 years experienced a fraud attempt either online or by phone, text, email, or mail in the past 2 years.

The poll found about 30% of respondents reported experiencing financial fraud, which could involve compromising credit cards, hacking bank accounts, or identity theft.

Older age is a risk factor for cybercrime. Seniors may have lower cognitive functioning and/or impaired decision-making. In addition, they are often socially isolated, dependent on others, and have poor health and financial literacy.

Romance Scams Common

Romance scams are another common financial fraud. Stephanie Garayalde, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, and another presenter at the APA session, used the example of Mr L, a 74-year-old outpatient under treatment for depression who was unable to pay his rent.

Mr L was giving money to his “girlfriend” he met online. Their relationship was totally virtual; she always had constant excuses for not meeting in person. He was funneling increasing funds to pay what he believed were medical bills and to bail her out of various other emergencies.

Once the fraud was discovered, Mr L not only felt the loneliness of a lost romantic connection but also grappled with feelings of embarrassment and guilt.

“I see older patients who have been scammed who feel ashamed that they haven’t left enough money for their families,” said Santos.

Another well-known scam targets grandparents. Fraudsters sometimes use an artificial intelligence-generated voice mimicking a young family member and pretend to need money right away for bail or another problem.

In such situations, Santos advises patients to “hang up and call your family” to verify the call “no matter what the person says or who they sound like.”

Scammers may impersonate government officials to try to get social insurance information. Santos stresses the importance of never giving out this information. “If someone says they’re from your bank or a government agency like the IRS, hang up and call the bank or agency yourself.”

Evidence suggests this and other cybercrimes are on the rise. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received 888,000 complaints in 2023, a 10% increase from 2022, and losses of about $12.5 billion, which is a 22% increase over 2022.

It’s not that uncommon for the same older person to be scammed by numerous people and fall for it again and again, said Santos.

To mitigate the risk to this vulnerable group, researchers at the University of Central Florida, Orlando, Florida, are developing a scam screener for the elderly that will provide tools to help doctors screen older adults. The screen will focus on identifying factors that make victims most vulnerable, including seniors’ ability to think critically, a necessary skill for guarding against cybercrime.

Red Flags

In the meantime, Santos identified red flags for clinicians. Patients may show deviations in their typical behaviors; for example, they may seem sadder, more subdued, or withdrawn than usual.

As loneliness and isolation can be a signal of victimization, “ask patients about their connectedness and be suspicious if the connectedness is all virtual,” she said.

Learning about the quality of their relationships is also important. “Instead of asking the superficial question of ‘Do you have friends’, ask ‘How do you talk to your friends? Are you actually getting out and meeting them?'”

If patients report they have never actually seen these so-called friends in-person, it should raise a red flag.

Another clue something may be amiss is “needing to be on their device or be home to get a call at a certain time.” Santos recalled a patient whose cell phone rang constantly during an evaluation, even after she had changed her phone number several times. “The scammers kept tracking her down,” she said.

Patients who are victims of cybercrime may stop taking their medications, fail to follow up on ordered tests, or miss paying for medical services.

Santos recommended screening for conditions known to be linked to cybercrime victimization such as depression. One of her patients was attending her memory clinic, but their cognitive issues were due to depression, not dementia.

It is important to identify subtle cognitive impairments. Santos recommended using the Saint Louis University Mental Status Examination, which she says is easier to use than the Montreal Cognitive Assessment.

Avoid Shaming

When managing patients who are potential cybercrime victims, she also suggests doctors be careful about their tone and their attitude. “Don’t shame someone for becoming a victim because it happens to everyone.”

When patients show signs of victimization, physicians could consider asking about their internet use, social media practices, and general safety surrounding their finances.

They should emphasize the importance of protecting accounts through strong passwords, multifactor authentication when possible, and avoidance of sharing personal information with anyone who calls, emails, or texts.

Clinicians might also consider asking patients to review bills for new or unusual charges, check their bank account statements for withdrawals they didn’t make, and review credit reports for accounts in their name they don’t recognize.

Clinicians should also encourage patients to have a health care proxy, power of attorney, and advanced directives and recommend resources that can help victims. These include:

Federal Trade Commission (to report identity theft):

Federal Bureau of Investigation – Internet Crime and Complaint Center

National Elder Fraud Hotline (1-833-372-8311) or 1-833-FRAUD-11


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