It’s time to teach the elderly about computer safety

Medicare wants doctors to get patients on their computers. Doctors are required to set up computer portals to communicate with patients. These portals use two-factor identification and presume substantial computer literacy from patients in their late 70s or 80s.

Yet, there are limits. For many geriatric patients, a cell phone means a feature phone with gigantic numbers. If they have a computer, it is running an early version of Windows 7, which has not been updated in years. They may have figured out Facebook and email. They may even be paying bills online and doing their taxes. But, their passwords are all the same, and their computer habits make them prone to scams and viruses.

When a heavily accented voice calls their phone, saying they are from “Windows” and “You have bad viruses, but I can help,” the response is only fear.

It is time to educate our older population about basic computer security.

Once every couple of months, a patient comes in with a panic attack. Is someone sick? What terrible thing could be happening?

The patient tells their terrible story:

I got a call from Windows. They said they detected computer viruses on my machine. The man seemed nice and told me to type a command. Oh, my goodness! It showed I had all kinds of viruses! So he had me take a couple of steps to fix the problem, and now my machine is really messed up. It looks like he just can’t fix it. He charged me money to do a repair, and I gave him my credit card info, but it just doesn’t work. I also called Microsoft back, and they can’t help me.

To all of you non-computer people out there, this is an old and frequent scam. The caller has the person open the “Windows event viewer” which shows many errors because that is simply the nature of computers. The computer is fine. Yet, the victim does not know this and wants it fixed. The scammer tells the victim to go to a website, type in a few commands and click “yes” and the damage is done.

At this point, the scammer has total control over the victim’s machine. Bank account, passwords, vital documents, tax forms and everything else are now in the hands of a thief in a foreign country. Then, the scammer offers to fix the machine for a fee, and the victim is bled dry.

The scam has worked with many surprisingly well-educated victims, including teachers, older accountants, and others. Many of these victims are as young as their early 60s.

Many of these people even considered themselves computer literate. They did their banking and investing online. They paid their credit cards and did their taxes on their computers.

When patients come into the office, the process is now days old, and the damage is done.

Google the phrase “Windows tech support phone scam” to see the scope of the problem. It relies on gullibility and lack of technical knowledge on the part of the victim. The scam has been around for a decade, yet a lot of relatively smart people keep falling for this fraud.

Why don’t we warn people? Why aren’t there ads on channels like Fox News, CNN or the Weather Channel?

Meanwhile, Medicare pushes doctors to communicate with patients online. Yes, there are very computer literate elderly who love this stuff.

On the other hand, there are far too many elderly with limited technical abilities.

Our practice has resisted widespread use of patient portals. We still use mail and voice phone calls to convey results. Our population is older.

If patients shouldn’t be driving, they shouldn’t be near a computer.

Steven Mussey is an internal medicine physician.

Image credit:, Steven Mussey 

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