June 16, 2024

Falling for online scams isn’t exclusive to any one demographic, even if that demographic is the native internet users, Americans born between the late 1990s and early 2010s.

Being part of Generation Z means that you or someone you know may have been the target or victim of an internet fraud. A survey by Deloitte recently revealed that cases of Gen Z individuals falling for these ploys and being hacked are significantly more common than their elderly counterparts.

When contrasted with older generations, younger individuals report higher instances of phishing victimization, identity theft, romance scams, and cyberbullying. The Deloitte study indicates that Gen Z Americans are three times more likely to fall victim to an online fraud than baby-boomers (16 percent vs 5 percent respectively). Similarly, Gen Z individuals are twice as likely to have a social media account compromised compared to baby-boomers (17 percent vs 8 percent). Additionally, Gen Z respondents reported the highest instances of location information misuse, at 14 percent. Furthermore, the financial implications of these scams for the younger generation seem to be increasing. Social Catfish’s 2023 report on internet scams indicates that losses to scam victims under 20 years of age increased from $8.2 million in 2017 to $210 million in 2022.

“Though Gen Z individuals are natives of the digital world and are aware of these things,” says Scott Debb, a psychology associate professor at Norfolk State University who has studied younger Americans’ cybersecurity habits. A 2020 study by Debb and a team of researchers in the International Journal of Cybersecurity Intelligence and Cybercrime compared millennials and Gen Z’s self-reported online security behaviors. It showed that while Gen Z had high online security awareness, they were worse off than millennials in integrating many cybersecurity best practices into their routines.

So, why are the people who arguably possess the most online knowledge more susceptible to online scams and hacks?

Several recurring theories attempt to explain this phenomenon. Firstly, Gen Z uses technology more than any other generation, and hence they are more prone to falling for technology-based scams. Secondly, their internet familiarity from a young age might make them prioritize convenience over security. Lastly, the cybersecurity education designed for school-aged children is failing to communicate online safety in a way that resonates with young people’s online experiences.

“Gen Z is not oblivious to the threats we face every day,” says Kyla Guru, a 21-year-old computer science student at Stanford who established a cybersecurity education organization as a teenager. Occasionally, when Guru introduces topics like email safety, social engineering or phishing to her students, she receives instant acknowledgment. “Responses like ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen something similar,’ or ‘I’ve come across many such spammers on my Instagram DMs,’ are common,” she shares.

Interestingly, scams that target Gen Z are not very different from those targeting the general online population. However, since younger people rely on technology more often, across more devices and in various life aspects, they might have more chances to bump into a deceptive email or untrustworthy online shop, according to Tanneasha Gordon, a principal at Deloitte who leads the company’s Data & Digital Trust business.

“They shop a lot online,” says Gordon, “and there are plenty of deceptive websites and e-commerce platforms that target them through fraudulent ads.” Phishing emails are also prevalent, she adds. While a tech-savvy individual might manage to evade a generic, typo-filled email scam, there are plenty of sophisticated, personalized ones out there. Social media impersonation and compromised accounts are yet another common experience among younger internet users, Gordon notes.

While older Americans also use the internet for dating, shopping, banking, and socializing, Gen Z is the only generation that has always had these technologies at its disposal. This distinction could be instrumental in shaping people’s approach to cybersecurity. Could the persistent online chaos make individuals more accepting of the risks involved in using the internet? According to Debb, this generational difference might lead younger people to prioritize convenience over security when interacting with their devices online.

Apps like Instagram and TikTok are designed to be simple. The app remains logged in on your phone, allowing you to post or browse at any time. Notifications about updates and messages are intended to get you to open the app. Debb proposes a scenario: If Instagram required its users to log out after each app exit and re-log in with two-factor authentication every time you want to use it again, it would probably enhance security. However, such an interface would be very frustrating for many users. Older generations might be more accepting of this friction, but for Gen Z, who have grown up with social media being an integral part of their identity, this level of security might be too inconvenient.

But, for Gen Z, the online experience isn’t a choice between the convenience behind one door and safety behind another. Instead, online safety best practices should be more tailored to younger people’s actual internet usage, argues Guru. Enhancing online safety could involve changing browsers, updating app settings, or altering password storage methods, none of which necessarily involve compromising on the convenience or limiting the internet usage. Viewing cybersecurity as an integral part of online activity, rather than its adversary, might resonate better with Gen Z, adds Guru.

“We are the game-changers of the future, aren’t we?” argues Guru. “We engage in activism for causes like climate change and reproductive rights. At that point, your threat model changes dramatically.”

Another essential aspect here is that the onus of maintaining safety while using these apps should not entirely be on the individual user. Many of these systems have convenience and speed at their heart, but they could certainly do more to ensure their users’ safety. Perhaps, major social media platforms could send their users test phishing emails, leading users who take the bait towards educational resources, suggests Gordon. Privacy settings should also be easier to comprehend and access.

Nevertheless, according to Guru, the key to making Gen Z more prepared for a world teeming with online scams might lie in enlightening the younger generation about deriving these threats.

“We need to understand why these scams occur, who is behind them, and how we can address the situation,” she concludes.

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