With online scams on the rise, digital ambassadors prevent vulnerable seniors from falling victim

In her job, Ms Santhi d/o Gopal Krishnan often sees seniors in distress, sometimes complaining of heart palpitations, chest pains and breathlessness.

On one of the occasions, an elderly woman shook so badly as she recounted to Ms Santhi a phone call informing her that $40,000 had been deducted from her life savings. She sought help from Ms Santhi, who called the bank and verified that her money was safe. Another elderly, targeted by an online scam, had to be hospitalised after suffering a panic attack.

But Ms Santhi, 52, is no medical professional. Instead, she is a digital ambassador with the SG Digital Office (SDO) established under the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA).

IMDA is partnering the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore and the Singapore Police Force on the new SG Cyber Safe Seniors Programme, which aims to reach out to seniors to raise their awareness of cybersecurity and encourage adoption of good cyber hygiene practices.

Protecting against scammers

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Ms Santhi is stationed at the House of Joy Tampines Greenweave Eldercare Centre, located in a housing estate comprising seniors who are largely living alone.

Armed with digital-related queries, seniors attend free one-to-one consultation sessions with the SDO’s digital ambassadors.

Through playing the Seniors Go Digital activity pack (which resembles a board game), they learn basic digital skills such as how to use their phones to send messages and make video calls, and how to navigate platforms such as SingPass and HealthHub. As their knowledge grows, they also learn about cyber security and how to protect themselves online.

According to Ms Santhi, about half of the seniors she sees have encountered some sort of impersonation scam. Scammers often pretend to be local agencies or organisations to trick victims into thinking that their bank accounts have been hacked.

They then request for the victims’ one-time password (OTP) to recover the money, she explains. When they panic, some seniors accidentally reveal how much money they have in their bank account.

“Many seniors have retired, so their life savings are extra precious. Some people start to become very nervous, they start shaking… It’s very sad to see. That’s why we help them out,” says Ms Santhi.

The first line of defence is simply not to pick up the phone. Seniors are taught to identify foreign unknown numbers, and to not give out sensitive details like their bank account numbers, credit card details and OTPs. She also advises them to call their respective banks to verify if their account has been hacked.

She adds: “We teach them three things: Don’t believe, don’t panic and don’t give… The goal is not to trust anyone. By doing that, you show them that you are not easily cheated.

“The most important thing is not to panic because when people start panicking, they start making mistakes.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of Ms Santhi’s job is to empower seniors on their digital journey. PHOTO: TED CHEN

Ms Santhi also helps seniors learn how to flag suspicious activities such as unverified links from unknown sources sent through e-mails, WhatsApp or SMS messages, love scams and automated calls informing recipients that their Internet connection needs an update, for which they’ll have to download a software.

Easing the digital journey

Grasping such topics may be hard for seniors who have difficulty recalling the steps – let alone their passwords. Another issue is that many elderly tend to be complacent and assume that their children would eventually find time to teach them digital literacy skills.

“I always tell them, don’t wait for your daughter or son to teach you. It’s better that you learn it yourself first. That’s how we motivate them,” she says.

These days, Ms Santhi and her fellow digital ambassadors have become the go-to tech support for many seniors, who would pop down to the eldercare centre to seek advice.

Recently, she has begun teaching them more advanced digital skills such as how to send location pins to family members in an emergency medical situation, book a private-hire car and book their vaccination slots online.

“Some keep coming back until they’ve become more professional than us, because they are learning new things on their phone every time,” she says with a laugh.

For Ms Santhi, the most rewarding aspect is seeing the seniors develop a newfound knowledge and an eagerness to learn new skills. She is determined to keep helping more seniors to be more vigilant and empowered.

“At first, many seniors were lost. They don’t know where to go… But after they talk to us, they feel very relieved and thankful. That’s why having knowledge is the best ⁠–⁠ by teaching them the necessary skills, they can avoid being scammed.”

Do’s and Don’ts to avoid being scammed

Protect yourself from becoming a victim of online scams by putting these tips into practice:

Do be wary of scammers pretending to be “government officials”. Local government agencies will never demand immediate payment online or instruct you to transfer money to any local or foreign bank account.

Do be wary of messages containing grammatical or spelling errors.

Do exercise caution before you click on links. For the list of trusted government-related websites, refer to www.gov.sg/trusted-sites.

Do be wary of incoming calls showing a ‘+’ sign if you are not expecting calls. Local calls will not display the sign.

Do not install any software and mobile application recommended by suspicious callers.

Do not disclose any personal or financial information, such as passwords or One-Time Password (OTP), to anyone.

Do not send money to someone you just met online.

Visit www.scamalert.sg to find out more or call the Anti-Scam helpline at 1800-722-6688 for scam-related advice.

Sign up for CSA’s Ask the Cyber Experts Series under the SG Cyber Safe Seniors Programme to hear first-hand from cyber experts on how you can stay safe online at www.csa.gov.sg/sgcybersafeseniors.

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