A recent report estimates that in 2010, people older than 60 lost $2.9 billion to financial exploitation, a 12 percent increase from 2008. The numbers are undoubtedly much higher than can be counted because due to embarrassment, it is one of the country's least reported crimes.
Most perpetrators are trusted professionals and family members but strangers are responsible too via scams, swindles and fraud. Whatever the source, cheating old people out of their money is growth industry because the number of elders is increasing; crooks believe they have a lot of money; and it is a low-risk crime due to that embarrassment factor.
It has bugged me for years that conventional wisdom, along with the FBI and other organizations, assert that elders fall victim to scams more frequently than younger people.
Why should they? 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.
It all sounded like a case of ageism to me or at best, that what is not included in elder scam reports is that victims are cognitively impaired to a greater or lesser degree.
Now, if two new studies from UCLA are accurate, the FBI is correct about larger numbers of elder scam victims and the reason supports my suspicion of impaired cognition if not in the way I imagined.
”Older people, more than younger adults, may fail to interpret an untrustworthy face as potentially dishonest, the study shows.
"The reason for this, the UCLA life scientist found, seems to be that a brain region called the anterior insula, which is linked to disgust and is important for discerning untrustworhty faces, is less active in older adults.”
As the writer Stuart Wolpert explains, younger and older adults react similarly to faces judged to be trustworthy or neutral. It is with viewing untrustworthy faces that the differences showed up. With the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans,
"In younger adults, the very act of judging whether a person is trustworthy activates the anterior insula," said Shelley E. Taylor, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and senior author of the new research.
"It's as if they're thinking they need to make this judgment with caution. This gives us a potential brain mechanism for understanding why older and younger adults process facial cues about trust differently.
“Now we know what the brain sees, and in the older adults, the answer is not very much when it comes to differentiating on the basis of trust.
"It's not that younger adults are better at finance or judging whether an investment is good; they're better at discerning whether a person is potentially trustworthy when cues are communicated visually.”
Professor Taylor says the “prototypical victim” is a 55-year-old male who is an experienced investor (although I've read elsewhere that an 80-year-old woman is typical). Taylor notes that for her, this study is personal: both her father and her aunt have been victims of financial scams.
Here are two images from the study. The young adult brain is on the left, the old adult brain on the right.
Taylor says that one of the functions of the anterior insula is to sense body feelings and interpret such visceral cues. “This is the response that we see lacking in older adults.”
That could be called a kind of cognitive impairment but it's not the sort I had imagined - of an elder's day-to-day reasoning deteriorating.
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.
You can read more about all this at the UCLA Newsroom website.
Here are some good online resources where you can learn about known scams, swindles and frauds that commonly target elders:
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Warren Lieberman: Monks in Taxis