Welsh Declaration of Rights for Old People
Not Like Them – Those Other Old People

Are Elders REALLY More Susceptible to Scams and Fraud?

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.)

The FBI Common Fraud Scheme/Seniors page
The NCOA Top 10 Scams Targeting Seniors
NOLO Financial Scams Against Seniors

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: The Best Lovers


I live in a retirement area and have known some of them from when they were in their 50s. One guy is actually my former work colleague, he's now 78. I have seen his gullibility quotient change dramatically. He used to be very careful with money getting multiple quotes for everything. Now he is paying huge amounts for home repairs, getting all sorts of useless work done, no quotes, poor workmanship. For e.g. paying $3,000 to cut down a very small crabapple tree, $5,000 for concrete grout on his backyard patio that is already crumbling a year later and looks like a child did it. Paying $2,000 to power wash siding on a small house that took them all of one hour.

Something medically is definitely going on, 20 years ago he would not be acting this way just signing up for anything suggested. He just got a new bathroom from the same workmen, no quotes, not even picking out any fixtures and fittings.

My other neighbour would answer all the phone calls and sign up for every pitch, like duct cleaning every week but it was a sign of Alzheimer's so can be explained.

My 78 year old friend does not have any signs of dementia that I can see. He downloaded the SAGE dementia test from University of Ohio and aced it.

I think a lot of the older are lonesome and when someone pays attention to them----- they pay for validation.

Are they going to refuse this person that has been so kind to them when that person is only trying to help them?

Glad to read this. It seems odd to me, too, that we should all be so easy to rook. One question I always have is what "over 50" means. That's like saying "Most people who are incontinent are under 30"--meaning infants, but getting lumped under a dubious number.
When I was on a listserv for caregivers for people w/ Parkinsons Disease, absolutely disastrous financial moves on the part of people with PD were a frequent problem for the caregivers.

My husband is hooked on PCH. No matter how much I point out it's not necessary to buy that junk , he keeps doing it. Anyone else have that problem?

Of course I can't say how I will be as I get older, but right now I have a big advantage. The FBI site says: "People who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Con artists exploit these traits, knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say 'no' or just hang up the telephone."

When someone calls my house and goes into a commercial pitch, I interrupt them mid-sentence with "Not interested." Then I hang up. I think I'm pretty polite in general, but not to sales callers--legit or not.

I have friends who recently fell for a phone scam - the husband got a call saying that there was a warrant out for him for not appearing for court, but he could get it taken care of for $500. They withdrew $500 from their savings and paid it, and it WAS a scam. This couple is in their early 70s, been married for over 50 years, and both active and vibrant and active in their church. You'd think they would know better, particularly since both of them are pretty computer-literate and use social media. Shake my head in disbelief.

The telephone scammers are so persistent that I think some elders will listen to their pitch just to get rid of them and then end up falling for their pitch. I was getting two recorded calls every day and finally had to subscribe to caller ID to avoid answering the phone. After a few days of them getting a 'no answer' they have stopped. Just hanging up immediately had done no good prior to that.

I updated my "Do Not Call" information, but that does not help with electronic calls because you are unable to tell them to not call again or I will report you. I think there is a way to report the telephone numbers that show up on my caller ID, but haven't researched to find out where.

One reason that elders might skew the survey results is because they are targeted more than other people.

I think this "myth" has basis in fact. My very elderly mother was targeted by a phone scammer but when we discovered this, we had her number made unlisted.

I did see my mom's cognition decline as she became more elderly. She applied for every credit card she was offered, for instance. And I saw her actually open her wallet, displaying her cards, for store cashiers to choose one to use. I personally believe that judgement declines before actual dementia appears.

I think older people are vulnerable. The only people I know who admit to getting caught up in this are over 75. And they wouldn't report it because they were so embarrassed nor did they stop to check it with anyone friends or family. One of them has been getting taken all her life, she's generous and always been a little naïve. None of them are "incompetent" per se but I wish they'd be as open with their kids as they are with strangers on the phone.

Last year I commented on this subject, saying that I am one of the least trusting people on the planet in part because of the failure of Seattle-based Washington Mutual Bank--still the largest bank failure in US history.

Another reason for not trusting strangers is that I read information about various scams, such as the emails about failure to appear in court. I get these, sometimes as many as 5 or 6 a day. They don't even say where to appear. I just hit "delete."

I don't hesitate to delete spam or hang up on robocalls or say "No, thank you" to door-to-door solicitors.

I am 74 and have not yet been scammed....I amuse myself when I do get a robocall asking me to press 1 to talk to an agent. I press 1 I let them talk and then say well you wasted my time with a scammy call so I thought that I would waste your time by letting you talk and get nowhere.....

I was raised to be friendly, polite, and trusting, and it's definitely something I've had to overcome. Fortunately I seem to be getting more impatient and intolerant in my old age and that makes it much easier for me to not answer phone calls from unknown numbers, or to hang up on them if I mistakenly answer. It also makes it very easy to close the door in the face of people who don't read and observe the No Soliciting sign posted on the door at eye level.

I do have to be on guard, however, and remind myself that a friendly conversationalist is not necessarily a friend, especially if they have something to sell. That's currently the biggest chink in my "armor."

I simply don't answer calls from numbers I don't recognize. If it's important - they'll leave a message.

Celia's comment about people being 'as open with their children as they are with these strangers' struck a particularly poignant note. I have seen that occur. How can children offer solutions or protection if they don't know it's going on? That type of behavior falls into neurosis/mental illness more than dementia, but in view of the statistics showing the onset of the various dementias climbing precipitously after 80, it's not hard to believe some elders are more vulnerable.

A tip for travellers. A stranger rushes up to you. "Hi. Welcome to (whatever your location.) Where are you from?"

If you respond, they now know something about you.

They know what language you speak.

That tells them what country you are probably from and how much $ you might be carrying.

I don't respond to these ambushes, as it is usually a sales pitch for time shares or other creative scams.

My husband likes to help people who look lost in Montreal. He has an awesome sense of direction.

Last week we were approached by a group of young Chinese men.

They politely asked us where the metro stops.

My DH explained the route and we lined up together for the trip home.

Turns out the guys were all pilots, over here to work for Bombardier.

We ended up chatting about the differences in etiquette between Shanghai and Montreal.

I was able to ask about how much English is taught in Chinese schools, and what is appropriate dress in Shanghai.

We are going to China this fall, so this meeting was pure luck.

Most seniors I know have a built in bull poop meter, created and honed over time.


We need to be aware of our surroundings at all times.

I am B. Henry, author of Jive Chalkin, a comedic memoir of teaching in Canada and in Bangkok.

I have been burned on a couple of occasions and am at a point where I totally ignore emails making offers even when from established companies. When I need a product or service I research it online always looking for certifications from the BBB and other customer oriented agencies. I no longer have a land line and I seldom if ever get solicitors calling me on my cell phone. If I see a number I don't recognize I simply ignore it and let it go to voice mail.

I also get references where applicable as I did recently hiring a roofer to replace my roof from the serious hail damage we had here back in April

Larry- One of the worst mistakes I made was relying on the BBB's recommendation - before I put $13,000 down on a new roof! The job was totally inadequate, would not pass the city's inspection, and was held in limbo. I challenged the builder at BBB's offices. The BBB and I put together the paperwork - but the other party never showed. That happened twice. Then the BBB told me - they cannot trust some of their members. "Members?", I asked. "Yes, all these folks are paid members and are then allowed to use the BBB seal." It's like the bad guys can buy into a club and then hold up a good housekeeping sign - it means nothing.

Cognitive decline does make one more vulnerable to scams. No study will make me believe otherwise. And the elderly shows more cognitive decline than in any other group. That doesn't mean that ALL of us will be victims by any means. But it's something we need to be on guard against in our elderly family members, friends and ourselves.

It is so sad (pathetic?) that in this day and age, people DO fall for the scams that were on the news years ago. Just recently a neighbor's email was hacked and many of her friends got a note that she and her husband were stuck in Turkey as their passports had been stolen.

One friend did send $5,000 via Western Union to help them. And then got very mad when he went to their condo and asked to be repaid since now they were home.

Linda: What is PCH ?

Linda: probably Publishers Clearing House

I think gullibility is a product of aging and the environment one was raised and lives in, but I have no idea in what proportions.

Utah, where we lived for 30 years, was widely known as the scam capital of the U.S. People believed in the integrity of their fellow Mormons, even when the faith was undeserved. Another factor was that many of the "brothers and sisters" who ran con games were well trained as sales people while serving church missions for 18 months or 2 years.

Those two factors, many believe, made Utahans ripe for the plucking. Two former attorneys general of the state presently are facing criminal charges for fraud, perhaps an indicator that it's an easy place to pull off white color crimes.

However, I've never seen any statistics claiming to show elderly Utahans are conned more often than youngsters.

As a consumer advocate, I blog about identity theft and privacy. Have done so for the past 7+ years. I am almost 60.

My readers include people from all age groups. Many perform online research before purchasing products and services. Scam artists are persistent and creative. So, the scams and threats are ever-changing... which tends to make age irrelevant.

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