Illinois Tech Part of Joint $5 Million NSF Project to Help Older Adults Recognize Online Scams and Disinformation

The National Science Foundation-funded project aims to reduce online fraud among older adults, who lose billions of dollars each year


Deception Awareness and Resilience Training (DART)

CHICAGO—October 12, 2022—Illinois Institute of Technology (Illinois Tech) Professor of Digital Humanities and Media Studies Carly Kocurek is part of a two-year, $5 million National Science Foundation project that is being led by the University at Buffalo to create digital tools that help older adults better recognize and protect themselves from online deceptions and other forms of disinformation.

Last year, more than 92,000 United States adults aged 60 and older reported being the victims of online scams, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, with losses totaling roughly $1.7 billion.

“Older adults did not grow up using the internet. For many of them, it can be difficult to spot online deceptions, and the results can be tragic,” says principal investigator Siwei Lyu,  Empire Innovation Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Buffalo. 

The project, called Deception Awareness and Resilience Training (DART), pulls together a multidisciplinary team of experts to create a suite of digital literacy tools, including digital games, that older adults can use to help recognize, resist, and spread awareness of online deceptions and disinformation.

“It's really exciting to work on projects related to games that are focused on demographics that aren’t who people immediately think of as gamers,” says Kocurek, a faculty member in Illinois Tech’s Lewis College of Science and Letters. “Investment in this area of research really speaks to how our understanding of games and play has developed and matured—you get innovative projects by trying to reach specific audiences and solve real problems through what they want and are already interested in.”

Kocurek is contributing user research to the project to ensure that the DART platform is effective and targeted at the population it’s trying to reach. “User research—market research—is woven in throughout the process, because it’s important if you’re trying to make something, whether it’s a commercial product or a product in a more abstract sense, to make sure that it’s actually relevant and useful for your audience,”  Kocurek explains.

DART builds upon a $750,000 NSF phase 1 grant that the team received last year, when it began meeting with older adults in Western New York and South Carolina to understand better why they fall victim to online deceptions. The DART platform considers 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 that older adults encounter. The team will update the learning materials as schemes evolve.

“We know that people tend to play certain types of casual games in an ongoing and routine way, like crossword puzzles and word jumbles in the daily newspaper, and so games are part of daily life even for people you wouldn’t traditionally think of as interested in gaming,” says Kocurek. “I think addressing the problem in creative and playful ways is useful, especially when we’re trying to get to people who maybe aren’t in the workforce or aren’t in school, so they’re not necessarily getting this information in other ways.”

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

Gamification is important not just because it engages and entertains hard-to-reach audiences, according to Kocurek. It’s also vital to keep the learning process going as information and online threats change. “A game might reach people who are difficult to reach otherwise, but it also provides a forum or an outlet to regularly provide updated information,” says Kocurek. “It’s not just a case of, ‘I took the class once. I'm done.’ Fraud and online deception tactics online are constantly changing, so it’s important to keep people engaged with the latest defenses.”

DART is funded by the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator, a program that the agency launched in 2019 to support “basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact.” 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.

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