Why some of us are susceptible to scams

dollar signCan you read people’s faces well enough to know whom to trust?  New research says that the older we get, many of us can’t.

When my mother was about eighty, she called to say, “You won’t have to worry about me when I’m old.  A nice man came to see me today.  I made him a tuna fish sandwich and bought insurance so that if I need help later in life I’ll be taken care of.” I was certain that she had been scammed.

The only scam I was familiar with at the time was “the pigeon drop,” with ‘pigeon’ referring to the victim. I couldn’t imagine my mother falling for that one, in which, “The con artist tells the individual that he/she has found a large sum of money and is willing to split it if the person will make a “good faith” payment by withdrawing funds from his/her bank account.”

On the other hand, she treated the dozens of mail requests she received every week from alleged charities as bills, so why wouldn’t she fall for a long-term insurance swindle?

According to the blog “Time Goes By,” the FBI says that elder scams are a growth industry.

An AARP Foundation survey of seniors who had been victims of fraud, calculated the average age of this group of  pigeons as sixty-nine. Women were more likely to be victims of petty fraud, by sending in small amounts of money to win sweepstakes (yes, that was my mother). Men, particularly those experienced in investing, were likely to lose more.

According to an NPR report on a recent UCLA study, people lose the ability to read “visual cues,” that is, signals such as no eye contact, a smile that stops before it reaches the eyes, defensiveness, mistiming between the words of an emotion and the actual emotion. Why? A region of the brain that “is important for discerning untrustworthy faces, is less active in older adults.” Elders may take extra care to avoid risks to their physical safety, but lose the ability to perceive other kinds of risks. “Another possible reason older adults don’t pick up on warning signs,” says UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, “is an increasing bias against negativity.” In other words as we age, we pigeons tend to become more like doves.

It’s scary to think that one day we might fall for the Nigerian millionaire who needs our help claiming his inheritance, or the email with a bank’s name at the top asking for our account number.

When my mom shared her story of the “nice man,” I wasn’t nearly as upbeat as she was. But I kept my mouth shut and researched her new policy.  As it turned out, the long-term care insurance she purchased was rated the best on the market and years later she used every penny she was due. So maybe she still could read faces, but I suspect she was just lucky.

If we can’t trust our brains, we shouldn’t have to rely on luck to avoid being taken in by a con artist. We need some kind of electronic device that coos like a dove when a suspicious person approaches us on the street, calls us, or sends us an email.  At the rate the population is aging, the person who invents this won’t have to worry about the proposed cuts in Social Security. And elders won’t have to worry about losing their savings, except of course to family members and trusted advisers who are reported to do most of the swindling.

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness.
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4 Responses to Why some of us are susceptible to scams

  1. I referred to these folks as bottom feeders and scumbags, the only time I’ve used such pejorative terms in my life. My eighty-year old mother would answer the phone and buy Lennox china, strange Christmas tree decorations and, one year, a set of toy trucks for her (then) 20-year old grandsons (my son still cherishes his, however). We were constantly afraid she would open the door to unsavory salespeople. She called me one day to say that a salesman was coming out to sell her a mattress (hers was almost new and more than serviceable). I called my sister in Spokane and she left work and drove over to mom’s house immediately. The salesman never showed up; we’re not sure if he was imaginary or if he was warned off by my sister’s presence. I think these folks feed on elder loneliness. As she became more isolated by her physical limitations, my mom was very vulnerable to long discussions on the phone which inevitably ended in a sale for the caller. In her younger years she prided herself on being able to spot con artists but all of her wariness around strangers fell away as she aged into senility. It was scary and sad, and I often asked my sister, “How can these people look themselves in the mirror each day?”

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