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Why aging boomers are more prone to scams

It seems like con artists are dreaming up new scams every week and the elderly often fall prey to the trickery. But why?

Many years ago, when my 70-year-old father came to visit me in New York City, he was scammed by a guy at Penn Station who told him that he would hail a cab for my father -- and that his fee for doing so would also cover the cab fare. My dad happily handed over $25 to that guy, and was then horribly embarrassed when the cab driver told him he'd been scammed.  

I remember how shocked I was that my father, a retired Navy captain and a very smart guy, could be so gullible. Well, now there's a study that explains it -- just in time for my own gullible years.  

Researchers at UCLA say that seniors' vulnerability to fraud is apparently rooted in neurological changes that come with aging. The study showed that an area in the brain known as the anterior insula was muted when older people looked at photos of suspicious-looking individuals. In other words, they had trouble reading visual clues like insincere smiles and shifty eyes.  

In the words of one of the scientists, "We believe that what is going on is that older adults have a bias toward positive emotional experience," something called "the positivity effect." Another study -- this one from Stanford -- says that effect explains why seniors are generally happier than young people.  

I'd love to look on the bright side here -- after all, my anterior insula is urging me to do just that -- but statistics indicate that there's a downside to this upbeat attitude. According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, financial scams involving older victims is on the rise. Elder fraud -- ranging from bank accounts being emptied by so-called trusted caretakers to fake sweepstakes -- totaled $2.9 billion in 2010. That's a 12 percent increase from the year before. Not a good trend, as more and more boomers move into old age.

So what's a gullible senior to do? Perhaps just knowing that you can't really trust your own instincts is a start. If my dad had been armed with this information about his anterior insula, would he have paused before handing over his cash to a total stranger? I'd like to think so.

Feeling positive may be a good thing. Feeling foolish, not so much.

About the author

Judy Muller is a professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
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My whole family was shocked to hear of our recently widowed mother's vulnerability when she was scammed by callers claiming to be her grandson in jail. We were amazed that she never asked any one of her children for advice and even ignored warnings by the Western Union employee. This issue certainly should be brought more to the forefront for the protection of the elderly amongst us. There are steps that family members can take, such as requiring another family member's signature on bank documents, that could protect an elderly relative.

Is is possible that we're being conditioned to suppress the reading of "visual clues" in the appearance of others because of an concern about being prejudicial?

Thank you for this commentary. It certainly speaks to me. I did not lose a lot of money, $40. A guy that I had met with his brother appeared at my door and asked for help. "You can just tell me to go away but I need help" or something like that. I cannot believe that I am writing this. I live in a low income neighborhood, have been here for 30 years, raised kids in this house, college educated etc. I cannot believe that I could have been this gullible. I have no relation to the brother except he lives next door in a very transient apartment house. And his brother showed up at dusk... For 2 weeks kept promising me the money and then says the next door brother went to jail. The next door brother keeps offering to help, shovel sidewalk etc. Again I cannot believe I am writing this. $40 is a lot of money for me, had it stashed away for emergencies and I guess I thought he needed it more than I did. Again thank you.

Thank you for getting the word out about this issue, which recently affected our family. My mom, a well educated widow living alone, was scammed out of a lot of $$, verbally abused and frightened by the scammer. I truly believe that there is a mental shift that affects the judgement of susceptible elderly people, and the scammers know how to select their targets. It's time for everyone to be aware of this issue, and protect vulnerable seniors. If her telephone company, bank, financial advisor or even the Western Union clerk had taken action, this would have been stopped much sooner.

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