“How could anyone fall for that?” is a common response to phone scams. Nevertheless, age can leave us susceptible to deception. Additionally, those currently retiring may be the wealthiest generation to approach old age. Predators are well aware of this.
It’s estimated that retirees lose nearly $36.5 billion, a year, to scams in the United States. That said, no one truly knows how much is lost. Scam victims are often embarrassed when they fall prey to these schemes—which leaves them unlikely to report these crimes. Let’s consider some of the reasons elderly people are prone to phone scams.
The elderly make for easy marks
Scammers are opportunistic, and tend to seek the path of least resistance. For such individuals, robbing a bank is a high risk option. By comparison, tricking a senior citizen—especially one suffering from cognitive impairment—is reasonably easy. Technology also gives them a tactical advantage. Instead of putting all their effort into one mark, they can run a brute-force robocall campaign. Doing so increases the probability of reaching a vulnerable person.
Isolation leaves people more vulnerable
As we age, our social circles can shrink. Friends move away or die. Family members grow preoccupied with their own busy lives. This leaves many elderly people lonely, and in need of companionship. For such people, a crafty scammer can gain influence just by being willing to listen. (This could be why romance-based scams are on the rise, among the elderly.) These scammers use emotion to their benefit. Some build rapport by being friendly and engaging. Others use threats to intimidate their mark.
Brain diseases affect judgement
Many elderly people suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. (It’s estimated that a third of people aged 85+ have Alzheimers.) As these diseases progress, they become easier to recognize. However, during the early stages, they often go undiagnosed. Although the presence of such a disease is not obvious, impairment can be significant. This makes sufferers more susceptible to manipulation as their financial judgment tends to be diminish first.
Aging people might be too positive
Researchers are examining why older people are more susceptible to fraud. Their findings? Even when unaffected by disease, the aging brain changes—making it less able to detect fraud. Cornell University’s Nathan Spreng, explains that as we age, “We’re less likely to pay attention to the negative…”. Changes to the brain make aging people less able to recognize deceit. This emotional change—and focus on the positive—leaves aging people more vulnerable to exploitation.
Technological illiteracy affects nuanced observation
Those immersed in technology possess a kind of sixth-sense for what’s reputable—and what isn’t. For example, digital natives easily spot a fake system message, that tells them their computer has a virus, and that they must call to have it “fixed”. Similarly, they know they can inspect an email sender’s address to determine its validity. The elderly are less familiar with these items. As such, they more readily mistake dubious messages as being credible than their younger counterparts. Anxiety can increase as we age. Being unable to clearly recognize threats only adds to this stress.
Fear of stigmatization affects behaviour
No one wants to lose their independence. This sense of autonomy is as important to the elderly as it is to you. Additionally, many older people are fearful of one bad decision limiting their options. This concern can lead victims of fraud to remain silent—out of fear that their children will take over their finances. (This isn’t unreasonable: A vast amount of elder fraud is perpetrated by family members.) Just one in 44 cases of financial abuse is reported. This means that many victims of fraud don’t receive the support, or protection, they need to might prevent recurrence.
They’re just like us…
If your phone rang right now, with news of a lottery win, you’d probably jump for joy. There’s something in every one of us that’s excited by such possibility—and fearful of threats (even if they lack substance). It’s worth noting that although the elderly are at higher risk of victimization though scams, they aren’t alone. Many healthy older adults fall prey to scams—even those considered “cognitively intact”. Additionally, many younger people are victim to financial scams—albeit typically for smaller sums.