Older Adults Miss Cues That Warn of Scammers

The notion that older adults are generally more trusting than younger folks (because they grew up in less complicated, more trusting times) has been busted.

New research suggests older people may be targeted by fraudsters because their brains work differently – and less efficiently when it comes to spotting scams – not because they’re blindly trusting.

It turns out that the part of the brain that gives off those “gut feelings” about whether someone is potentially devious is less active in older people. And that diminished capacity begins sometime in our 50s.

It’s not exactly clear whether that region of the brain is degrading or the neurons that send warning signals aren’t firing properly. Either way, says Shelley E. Taylor, a psychology professor and a senior author of the UCLA study, the consequences of misplaced trust can be ruinous.

A recent study estimates that adults over age 60 lost at least $2.9 billion to financial exploitation in 2010 – from home repair scams to financial swindles.

“Older adults seem to be particularly vulnerable to interpersonal solicitations,” Taylor says.  “It looks like their skills for making good financial decisions may be deteriorating as early as their early-to-mid-50s.”

Researchers asked 119 people between ages 55 and 84, and 24 younger people, to view photographs of faces to compare perceptions of trustworthiness. The faces were intentionally chosen to look trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy.

When it came to looking at the untrustworthy faces, the younger people reacted strongly but the older adults did not. Subsequent brain scans showed significant activity in a portion of the brain when younger people looked at the untrustworthy types. There was little brain activity among the older people.

These findings seem to affirm earlier research, which suggested that victims of fraud tend to be over age 50.  Doug Shadel, state director in Washington for AARP and author of Outsmarting the Scam Artists: How to Protect Yourself From the Most Clever Cons (www.wiley.com), says we may never know for sure if older people are victimized more than young people.

But since 2004, the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and AARP have conducted extensive interviews with more than 1,700 fraud victims and the vast majority of them were more than 50 years old, “which tells us something about age as a vulnerability factor,” he says.

For tips on how to avoid getting scammed, particularly as we head into the holiday season, click here.

Photo credit:  Thomas Galvez via flickr.com