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Sign of the times: 21-year-old teaches Dallas seniors about crypto, NFTs and selfies

Natalie Walters, The Dallas Morning News on

Published in Senior Living Features

DALLAS Friday afternoon at The Preston of Park Cities retirement home, 16 seniors look up expectantly at their teacher: a 21-year-old former president of the blockchain club at the University of Texas at Austin.

Elevator music plays in the background of the quiet meeting room as he introduces his presentation titled, “Crypto Crash Course.”

A few seconds into the lecture comes the first comment from the crowd: “I can’t hear.”

The luxury senior living facility on Sherry Lane has regular classes but this is the first one delving into the complexities of cryptocurrencies and NFTs — topics with few experts even among younger generations.

“I was a guest lecturer at my university for an intro to blockchain course just because there aren’t a lot of people who know enough to teach this stuff,” said Owen Robertson, the young crypto lecturer who’s majoring in the management of information systems. He’s also on the board of the McCombs School of Business Blockchain Initiative and works as a marketing associate at blockchain company Quai Network.

The Preston advertised the class as a way to educate residents on legitimate crypto avenues and how to avoid being scammed. The class meets three times total, once in person in July and twice virtually in August. The classes will also give an overview of nonfungible tokens — or a unique, individual token on the blockchain that you can buy, sell or trade — and each resident will walk away from the course with their own NFT.

The idea for the lecture came from a brainstorming session for the community’s monthly programming series that focuses on spiritual, emotional, vocational, physical, social, environmental and intellectual wellbeing, said Debra Dickerson, director of community life at The Preston.

“In this case, we wanted to provide them with access to a crypto, NFT and internet scams expert, to help them better identify online threats and people looking to take advantage of seniors,” she said.

At the first meeting, there were four fewer people than at a typical class hosted by the community, Dickerson said.

“I knew it may be difficult to get them interested in this so I promised chocolate ice cream and wine to everyone who came,” Dickerson said. “They see ‘crypto’ and say, ‘I don’t know what that is.’”

Elder fraud has increased dramatically with the rise of the digital age, which has brought new and easier ways to scam people through phishing emails and texts. Last year, elders in the U.S. were scammed out of $1.7 billion through fraud schemes, a 74% increase from 2020, according to a report from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Of the complaints received from seniors over 60, over 5,000 mentioned a form of virtual currency, like Bitcoin, for a total loss of $241.1 million.

Robertson opened his talk by telling the story of Lazarus Group, North Korean hackers thought to have stolen as much as $100 million in cryptocurrency from a U.S. company in June.

“Scammers can be very elaborate,” Robertson told the audience. “The best practice is to never click on a link or PDF unless you know the person who sent it to you and have spoken to them.”

Robertson recounted a story of his own in which someone texted him pretending to be his boss. But when he got the text, Robertson was sitting across from his boss.

“Is one way they get to you by saying you won a prize?” asked one member of the audience, saying he had received such a text.

“Yes,” Robertson said. “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Robertson referenced the cryptocurrency called Luna, which fell from $116 in early April to essentially zero, causing many investors to lose large sums of money. If you had bought the coin in its first three months and sold it at its height when it hit a market cap of more than $40 billion, you could have made 1,000 times your initial investment.

“This is an example of if it’s too good to be true, it is. The token was originally trusted like the Amazon of the crypto world,” he said. “But it went from hero to zero.”

Cryptocurrencies have skyrocketed in popularity because of the ease of access to them through the internet and because of the chance of large monetary gains, he said.

“There’s a lot of people who have staked their lives on crypto, and I would say to never do that,” he said.

 

Robertson’s opinion is the industry needs five to 10 years to “let the dust settle” before it’s a safe investment. As some in the audience jokingly pointed out, that meant it was mostly off-limits for the older crowd.

“Ninety-nine percent of what is out right now is not worth the risk,” he said about the industry that’s a little over a decade old. “Don’t trust anyone’s opinion without verifying it yourself.”

But, for seniors who were still interested, Robertson said they’d be best off by investing in Bitcoin and staying away from all other cryptocurrencies. That’s partly because its supply limit has always stood at 21 million coins, while other cryptocurrencies have an infinite supply, he said.

“Most of the cryptocurrencies we see today won’t be relevant in five years,” he said. “It’s going to keep changing over time. I see it like the internet in the 1990s.”

Robertson ended the class by asking, “Can we take a selfie together? I’d like to turn it into an NFT.”

“What’s a selfie?” asked one listener.

Reality of crypto scams

Most seniors who are victims of crypto scams weren’t trying to buy crypto for themselves, said Blake Cohen, a senior blockchain investigator in Austin. He works to prevent fraud and scams on the cryptocurrency exchange Okcoin.

“The same traditional scams that were used with banks and payment apps are moving to crypto because it’s faster and cheaper,” he said. “And once the scammer gets it to their own private digital wallet, the victim can’t get it back.”

The most common crypto scam Cohen sees is hackers pretending to be tech support who need to take over someone’s computer to help them with non-existent issues like a computer virus. The scammer then gets control of their bank account and can send cryptocurrency funds to their private digital wallet. The 2021 FBI report shows this tech support scam was the most common fraud that elders fell victim to in 2021, with 13,900 victims.

“It’s the most devastating type of scam,” Cohen said.

For someone to purchase a token on Okcoin, the platform requires them to submit an official identification photo, such as their passport or driver’s license, and a selfie of themselves. But Cohen said they don’t know if that person is signing up on their own or because a scammer told them to make an account. If red flags come up, like a senior signs up and immediately wires $100,000 to their account, Cohen will sometimes ask the senior why they are creating the account, and if they’re doing it on their own, he said.

“Even if we stop it, the scammer may have them go to another platform, and they still get scammed,” he said.

In one worst-case scenario, Cohen said he saw a victim lose millions of dollars because they were trying to extend the warranty on their anti-virus software. The tech support scammer said he’d extend it for the victim but, once he gained control of the computer, he bought cryptocurrencies and sent them to his digital wallet instead.

“I can trace where the money went, but you can’t get it returned once it’s in someone else’s digital wallet,” he said. “They control it.”

A common tactic scammers use is creating a sense of urgency, insisting that the victim has to take action now, Cohen said.

“If you’re an elderly person, stop for a second and take a step back and think, ‘Does what I’m doing make sense right now?’” he said. “If there’s any doubt, stop.”

And for family members, it’s good to check in with your senior relatives, he said.

“We’ve had a bunch of scams stopped because a younger relative realized something was up and contacted us,” Cohen said. “[Crypto scams] are one of the most devastating problems in the industry and very few people are aware it exists.”

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