Scammers ‘could use emergency text alert to target seniors’

Example of an emergency notice

Example of an emergency notice

Fraudsters could exploit the government’s emergency alert system test to target the elderly and vulnerable, activists have warned.

At 3pm next Sunday, millions of cell phones across the country will sound a siren as officials test a new electronic warning system intended to notify the public of natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Phone users who receive the message will not be able to use their device until they acknowledge it, although those who do not wish to receive the warning can opt-out using their device settings.

But activists fear that the introduction of the new emergency alert system will give cybercriminals new opportunities to unleash scams on unsuspecting members of the public, particularly the elderly.

Marilyn Baldwin, who founded and runs the Think Jessica charity and now educates and advises the vulnerable on how to stay safe online, said criminals are always looking for new opportunities to exploit the vulnerable.

He said: “I think there is a chance, as with any system that uses mobile devices, that scammers will try to cash it out. Once they know people are waiting for this alert, they’ll come up with ways to exploit it.

“It’s not just about Sunday’s message, it’s about what comes next. What if an elderly or vulnerable person gets a notice that their bank account has been compromised: will they ignore it or will it now seem more legitimate?

“Unfortunately, scammers are extremely sophisticated and inventive and the danger is that people who have heard of the emergency alert test will be caught off guard. Older people tend to be more confident and may also have declining mental capacity and therefore will be more easily persuaded that messages are genuine. It’s definitely a concern.”

‘Smart to be suspicious’

Ms Baldwin, whose mother was stalked by scammers, something she claims contributed to her death, said people needed to be on guard and added: ‘It’s smart to be suspicious.

“We know these alerts will not just be sent to individuals but to areas, so it’s important that if you receive one, check with friends, family or neighbors who have received the same message.

“Also, it’s important to remember that these alerts won’t tell you to do anything specific, so if the message includes instructions on what to do next, it could very well be a scam.”

The alert system is based on similar schemes operating in the United States, parts of Europe and Japan. It will allow government officials to warn large groups of the population about incidents that may affect them and is considered a highly effective form of public information.

But concern has been expressed that the potential consequences may not have been fully thought through.

Domestic violence charities have warned that a sudden alarm could alert a harasser to hidden phones that victims use to communicate with people they trust. Road safety groups said the alert could distract drivers and cause accidents.

The government has tried to reassure the public by insisting alerts will only come from it or the emergency services and include details of any affected areas, providing instructions on how best to respond.

The Cabinet Office said the alerts were safe, free to receive and one-way, insisting they did not reveal anyone’s location or collect any personal data.

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