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.