iSchool part of $5 million grant to help older adults recognize online scams and disinformation

Anita Nikolich
Anita Nikolich, Director of Research and Technology Innovation and Research Scientist

Last year, more than 92,000 U.S. adults aged 60 and over reported being victims of online scams, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Their losses? Roughly $1.7 billion.

To fight this problem, the iSchool is co-leading a two-year, $5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator phase 2 project to create digital tools that help older adults better recognize and protect themselves from online deceptions and other forms of disinformation.

"Online deceptions are getting harder to spot, even for people who grew up with the Internet," said co-principal investigator and cybersecurity researcher Anita Nikolich, research scientist and director of research innovation at the iSchool. "Older adults are disproportionately affected by online scams but are often embarrassed to admit they fell for them. Our goal is to create a fun game aimed at this population that familiarizes them with scams they might run across."

Co-principal investigators include Siwei Lyu, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Buffalo; Natalie Bazarova, professor of communication at Cornell University; Dominic DiFranzo, associate professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh University; and Darren Linvill, associate professor in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Science at Clemson University.

The project, Deception Awareness and Resilience Training (DART) is funded through 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 NSF 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 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 will allow us to have a clearer understanding of the preferences of older gamers and with that information we will be able to design an experience for them that interweaves information and fun," said Dan Cermak, game studies coordinator in Informatics at Illinois.

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.

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.

While focused on older adults, the DART platform is being designed so it can be adapted for use by other groups that are vulnerable to online deceptions.