Helping those with acquired brain injury keep safe online
Understanding, preventing and managing the impact of cybercrime on people with acquired brain injury (ABI) is the focus of a new study by Monash University.
People with ABI may be highly vulnerable to cyber scams due to their social isolation and cognitive impairments, with romance scams one of the key scam types, causing both financial loss and distress as well as conflict with their families.
Melbourne man Col is all too aware of this. In 2005, he was involved in a road accident and sustained a traumatic brain injury. The last thing he needed while trying to recover was to be scammed online.
In 2014, now separated from his wife and living in supported accommodation, Col joined dating sites and began an online relationship with someone he knew as Doris. She presented as a Canadian nurse living in Ghana. It wasn’t long before Doris professed her love for Col and he was fully invested in the relationship.
Doris convinced Col to invest in gold, sending her money. The requests escalated and Col had soon drained his savings. His ex-wife ended up telling police and also Col’s neuropsychologist, Dr Kate Gould, a research fellow at the Monash-Epworth Rehabilitation research centre and Monash’s Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.
Dr Gould found no previous research or clinical guidelines to help her work through Col’s issues. She found plenty of research on online scams – and romance scams in particular – but nothing on what she perceived as a vulnerability of people with ABI’s to scams.
So she and Col built their own path.
With Australians placed as the 5th highest victims globally to cybercrime, Dr Gould has identified from interviewing other clinicians who work with this population that people with ABI are likely at an even higher risk due to impaired memory, difficulty keeping track of inconsistencies in a scammer’s story, loneliness, having a very trusting nature and reduced online safety skills or knowledge. Getting people to the point where they understand they have been scammed can be very difficult, with highly skilled scammers grooming people for years and sometimes convincing them to travel overseas.
With a grant from the TAC small grants program, the CyberABIlity team, led by Dr Gould, are working to create an online cybersafety training program designed with and for people with ABI. The collaborative team includes Professor Jennie Ponsford AO, also from the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Anna Holliday from Li-Ve Tasmania and Colin and Alf who have lived experiences of cyber scams and ABI.
With early intervention being key, input from people with ABI to contribute to the design and trial the online resources is now underway. While there are a range of existing cybersafety resources available, Dr Gould says there is a need for these to be tailored for people with ABI. For family members, carers and clinicians who support people with ABI, having open, non-judgmental conversations about cybersafety is critical in providing a safe and trusting space to help promote online safety and respond to any cyber scams. The online training resources will include practical strategies for people with ABI and those who support them such as education about healthy relationships and learning the red flags that indicate a ‘romance’ scam.
“Effectively managing the impact of cybercrime has the potential to enhance quality of life for people with ABI by maximising their safety and building confidence in accessing the internet, email, social media and other online activities. It can also help to minimise potential impact on their mental health,” Dr Gould said.