Every year or two, I write a blog post about scams, swindles and frauds that are likely to be perpetrated upon elders, along with some information on how to avoid them.
Conventional wisdom in the reporting about elders and fraud, supported by the FBI, Nolo, NCOA, AARP and other organizations one would expect to be knowledgeable, is that many more old people are cheated out of their money than younger people:
”The U.S. Department of Justice,” writes Nolo in an undated piece on the website, “estimates that dishonest telemarketers take in an estimated $40 billion each year, bilking one in six American consumers -- and the AARP claims that about 80% of them are 50 or older.”
In support of the assertion that elders are more stupid than others, the FBI relies on infantilizing us. Here are some of their reasons from an undated page at the FBI website:
“People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits...
“Older Americans are less likely to report a fraud because they don’t know who to report it to...
“When an elderly victim does report the crime, they often make poor witnesses...
“Senior citizens are more interested in and susceptible to products promising increased cognitive function, virility, physical conditioning, anti-cancer properties, and so on...”
As I reported here last year, I had been irritated for years at these assumptions that old people are more frequent victims:
”Why should they [be]?” I wrote. “In fact (thought I), with age comes experience and many elders have probably been burned enough times by unscrupulous people to be more alert to it than those with less experience.”
But that post last year was about new studies showing that scans of elder brains reveal diminished response to untrustworthiness. I concluded,
”So it seems my arrogance was showing in believing that my brain is healthy enough that I could not fall victim to a swindler. Now I know better. We are all vulnerable and these studies are a good warning to be careful.”
Well, not so fast. Although I generally stay away from reporting studies that use words like might, maybe, could about results, last year's studies were about what researchers found (or found lacking) in brains of young and old.
Not many maybes about that. Except, perhaps, in interpretation.
More recently, three researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada looked into the available data to see if elders really are scammed more often than younger people:
”While there isn’t much research that directly answers this question, the research that does exist suggests that older adults may be less frequent victims than other age groups,” reports one news source.
As the abstract of the published research report notes, there isn't enough evidence to be certain that elders are less frequent victims but neither is there evidence that they are more frequent victims.
”In generalizing from laboratory findings of cognitive decline to age differences in the prevalence of consumer fraud, psychologists may underestimate the influence in everyday life of possible protective factors associated with old age, including increased experience and changes in goals, lifestyle, income, as well as purchasing and risk behaviors.”
Just as I have always suspected – that a lifetime of experience make elders less vulnerable to scammers. Maybe. Maybe not.
But the jury is out and such organizations as Nola, NCOA, AARP and the FBI, lacking evidence, should not assume that old people are too stupid to come in out of the rain.
If I have learned anything in 20 years of studying aging, it is that the negative myths and presumptions about elders by the ignorant and uninformed are refuted far more often than they are upheld.
That does not mean that even the most vigilant people of any age cannot be scammed by clever swindlers. Nor does it mean that the experts who are so quick to scorn elders' cognitive capabilities can't provide useful information.
They are correct that elders are frequently targeted because the bad guys, too, believe the stereotype that old people are more susceptible than young people. And, when you are robo-calling and emailing millions, you are bound to turn up some who really do suffer cognitive decline.
So here are some good websites with information on the many ways the bad guys use part us from our money. (Do note, however, than none of the pages are dated so there is no way to know if, for example, “top 10 scams” are still true. New ones have undoubtedly been invented by now and others may have become more or less common.)
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: The Best Lovers