Kevin Hanna’s class on cyber safety in Upstate New York attracts adults of all stripes, from 40-somethings to those well into their 80s. Some are tech neophytes, drawn in by the need to video chat with children no longer living in the area. Others are retired computer programmers looking to keep up on the latest online and phone scams. What they have in common is relative financial security and the fact that they’re often too trusting. And now they’re targets.
Hanna is the regional director of external affairs for AT&T. He teaches this class because 95% of Americans age 60 or older have experienced a scam online, costing them an estimated $1 billion last year alone. For two hours, the students sit rapt as Hanna draws from local news and AT&T’s Cyber Aware website to identify the major themes, tactics, and tricks that scammers use: pop-up boxes warning of computer viruses or calls that imitate authority to trigger a sense of fear and urgency. “I get voice mail messages that I have warrants out for my arrest,” Hanna says. When he asks if anyone in the class is, like him, supposedly on the lam, “evading law enforcement,” many hands go up.
It’s not just seniors who are at risk. According to a recent survey sponsored by AT&T, 90% of Americans across generations have experienced phishing via email or robocall, while roughly 25% have discovered a virus or malware on one of their devices. So once Hanna gets home to his family, his workday continues. He advises his teenage son never to assume online strangers are who they claim to be and educates his mother-in-law that providing seemingly innocent information to a stranger over the phone is, in fact, over-sharing, opening the door to a nefarious follow-up call.
Hanna is on the front lines of a burgeoning cyber trend called “tech caregiving,” in which people give or receive help on tech matters from those close to them. Hanna points out that a tech caregiver does not require educating an audience like he does; it’s often an unwitting role. “Folks who have older parents are often caregivers but might not be familiar with the label,” Hanna says. “While people as young as 12 can play caregiver to grandparents on things as simple as sending a photo. If I had a question about social media, my wife would be the expert. We each play our role based on what we do online and use the technology for.”
HELP IS ON THE WAY
When it comes to cyber security, the role of caregiver is ever changing. “Scammers and their techniques and tactics are constantly evolving,” Hanna observes, citing the trend in social-media mining, in which scammers target people based on what they post in their feeds. “As our use of technology grows in its sophistication, scammers likewise use that against us.”
Neil Giacobbi, assistant vice president of corporate social responsibility for AT&T, acknowledges the challenges his industry faces in both cyber security and digital safety. “There’s overwhelming awareness that there’s a problem,” he says. “It’s evidenced by daily reporting on scams, parental anxieties, children’s self-esteem—I can go on and on with all of the social issues. [But] where do you go for help, and what form does that help take?”
The Cyber Aware website, which provides tips to consumers to keep them secure online and protect them from scams and fraud, is one such resource. Another is ScreenReady, an innovative pilot program in New York City that is training the company’s retail sales force to be digital-safety consultants. Consumers—whether they’re AT&T customers or not—can get free support on how to use parental controls and safety settings. The program has been so welcomed by consumers that AT&T is considering expanding it to all of its retail stores in 2020.
AT&T has a long history of promoting responsible use of its products, including its It Can Wait campaign, which warned of the hazards of texting while driving, and educational efforts around cyberbullying. “AT&T has a reputation for caring about our customers’ safety,” Giacobbi notes. “So it’s a natural extension to go from [awareness around] physical harm to more ambiguous concerns about the products we sell, specifically when they’re used by children.”
Before tackling these concerns, the company first needed to understand how we arrived at this place. Giacobbi cites 2015 as the tipping point, when the percentage of teens owning smartphones first crossed 50% along with the increased complexity in managing them safely. He also cites the change in tone of media coverage surrounding social media by 2017—catalyzed by the previous year’s election—and how it prompted the company to gauge customer conversations on the front lines. “Our retail reps told us that conversations with parents were coming from a place of discomfort, anxiety,” he says. “They had questions about their kids’ safety and the content they’d encounter online. This started a process of deeply exploring what it meant for tech caregiving in a family.”
That process involved a multi-month design workshop in 2018, in which retail employees in New York City—all of whom had children using devices—focused on the roles they play both at work and home. This allowed AT&T to understand not just each employee’s family experience but also what customers were expressing. “We rely on research—surveying our customers, parents, teenagers, parents of young children, and our retail workforce,” Giacobbi explains. “That’s where the insight is built from. What we learned was that caregiving wasn’t just limited to children and setting up phones, but an array of safety issues, from being smart about fraud to helping parents set up Facebook. It encompassed a multi-generational perspective.”
The workshop produced two additional takeaways: that customers wanted to be talked to face-to-face; and that AT&T’s retail workforce—already experts on mobile devices, parental controls, and content filters—would need little additional training in order to also provide safety support. “That was the big breakthrough: understanding that we have this huge training platform within our retail workforce that [already] educates them on products and promotions,” Giacobbi explains. “So from there it wasn’t hard to develop a training curriculum and tools to engage customers on the topic.”
STAYING IN CONTROL
Johanna Lugo is a single mother living in New York City who, along with her daughter Elliana, has benefited firsthand from the ScreenReady experience. While chaperoning an event last year for her daughter’s middle school, Lugo noticed that Elliana was the only student without a phone. While being able to contact her daughter was important, Lugo had concerns over what a smartphone might expose her to. “With social media these days, every kid feels pressured to get one,” Lugo says. “But I didn’t want to give her something that I’d later regret by not having control.”
Lugo’s biggest obstacle was finding helpful resources since, as she says, most “social media help buttons go nowhere.” When she went to AT&T to upgrade her own smartphone, an AT&T retail sales consultant guided her through the pros and cons of getting one for her daughter. She showed her how to set parental controls and manage screen time. She also guided Lugo through the ScreenReady website, where Lugo now finds age- and issue-specific online tips by Common Sense Media, along with insightful information on the apps her daughter uses.
“I like that the ScreenReady site is very organized—simple and straight to the point,” Lugo says. “People have been very thankful when I share links to its content on Facebook. They comment on how clever it is to have all the information in one place.”
Lugo is happy to now consider herself a tech caregiver. “In this day and age, everything is digitized and is only going to get more high tech,” she says. “As a parent, either you get with the trend or get left behind. This helps to keep me one step ahead of the game.”
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