With large numbers of older people using WeChat, experts warn that a growing risk of online payment fraud could follow, since seniors are more vulnerable and more easily influenced.
A study released on July 25 by Tencent Research Institute and Shenzhen University said users age 55 and older spend an average of 1.37 hours per day on the popular social media app, each with an average of 104 WeChat friends.
The growing use of online payments, such as WeChat Wallet and its main rival, Alipay, comes with a growing risk of fraud
The figures are based on a survey of 956 families across 58 cities.
Zhu Wei, deputy director of the Communication Law Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law, said the strong social bonds offered by WeChat have provided positive options for seniors.
However, their growing use of online payments, such as WeChat Wallet and its main rival, Alipay, comes with a growing risk of fraud.
Criminal gangs target older people, particularly retirees, and hope to gain their trust in order to defraud them, Zhu said.
"With online payment, it has now become much easier for seniors to pay someone directly after they have established trust," he added.
Seniors have long been a key target of fraud in China and elsewhere. In April, police officers in Jilin province broke a telefraud case involving more than 500 million yuan (US$73.2 million). The company, based in Changchun, had gained elderly people's trust and convinced them to buy drugs at twice the normal price.
Police arrested 114 suspects and found the victims were mostly seniors with low incomes.
A report in March by the Tencent Center for Internet and Society found that 67.3 percent of middle-aged and elderly people had experienced some form of internet fraud.
However, more than half of seniors are reluctant to seek help after being deceived. The report showed only 0.6 percent of those sampled chose to call the police for help.
"It is also due to a lack of channels for seniors to seek help," said Zuo Xiaodong, vice-president of the China Information Security Research Institute. "Citizens don't know where and how to ask for help when bad things happen."
Zuo suggested that a system for supervising online payments should be set up, and hotlines for help should be promoted.
About 7.68 million seniors were active WeChat users in September 2016, according to the Tencent Research Institute's data. In September last year, the number had surged to 50 million.
The study also said 50.3 percent of older users learned how to use WeChat from their children or grandchildren. It suggested that family members should do more to educate elderly people about new technology and cybersecurity to help them enjoy a better digital life.
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