Data from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center shows that last year, more than 92,000 U.S. adults aged 60 and over reported being victims of online scams. Their losses? Roughly $1.7 billion.
To fight this problem, researchers from Lehigh University and four other universities have been awarded a two-year, $5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator phase 2 cooperative agreement to create digital tools that help older adults better recognize and protect themselves from online deceptions and other forms of disinformation.
“Senior citizens are one of the most targeted and vulnerable groups when it comes to social financial scams,” explains co-principal investigator Dominic DiFranzo, assistant professor in the Computer Science and Engineering department.
In addition to DiFranzo, investigators include lead PI Siwei Lyu, Empire Innovation Professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Buffalo, co-PI Natalie Bazarova, professor in the department of Department of Communications at Cornell University, co-PI Darren Linvill, associate professor in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Science at Clemson University; and co-PI Anita Nikolich, director of research and technology innovation and research scientist in the School of Information Sciences at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Other team members from UB include David Castillo, professor in UB’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Rohini Srihari, professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Cynthia Stewart, program manager for UB’s Center for Information Integrity.
The project, Deception Awareness and Resilience Training (DART), is led by UB’s Center for Information Integrity, which is co-directed by Lyu and Castillo.
The project is funded by the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator, a program the agency launched in 2019 to support “basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact.”
DART builds upon a $750,000 National Science Foundation phase 1 grant the team received last year, when it began meeting with older adults in Western New York and South Carolina to better understand why they fall victim to online deceptions.
The DART platform takes into account these lessons, and it uses digital games — including engaging and realistic social media situations — to make learning fun. The aim is to make DART easy to use, so older adults can learn on their own, in communal settings such as adult homes or libraries, or with the aid of a caregiver.
There are many digital literacy tools available, but many are not tailored to older adults, which limits their effectiveness. DART aims to address this limitation by including a wide range of online schemes older adults encounter. The team will update the learning materials as schemes evolve.
Lehigh University is leading the technical design, development and deployment of the DART platform.
NSF selected the DART team for the second phase of the accelerator’s 2021 cohort. It is one of six teams funded under the accelerator’s Track F: Trust and Authenticity in Communication Systems.
Additional DART investigators are affiliated with Cornell University, Lehigh University, and Northeastern University. The team also includes representatives from the Education Collaborative of Western New York. Additional partner organizations include the Amherst Center for Senior Services in Amherst, New York; Clemson Downs, a retirement community in Clemson, South Carolina, and the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system.
While focused on older adults, the DART platform is being designed so it can be adapted for use by teenagers and other groups that are vulnerable to online deceptions, Lyu says.