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What Makes Older Adults Vulnerable to Scams?

Research has shown that older adults are particularly susceptible to scams and fraud. Factors that put them disproportionately at risk include:

  • Age Associated Financial Vulnerability  – A pattern of risky behavior related to money that places an older adult at substantial risk. Factors that can contribute include cognitive or emotional decline; impairments in vision, hearing, or mobility; serious progressive illness; and social isolation.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), Alzheimers and DementiaMild cognitive impairment is used to describe older subjects with demonstrable cognitive impairment who have not crossed the threshold for dementia. This and other forms of dementia are associated with greater risk of financial exploitation.
  • Recent Life/Circumstance Change – Major life changes like the death of a spouse, retirement, or moving to a new home increase a victim’s vulnerability.
  • Loneliness and Depression – Suffering from depression or loneliness increases risk of financial exploitation. Those who are widowed often believe there is still someone out there who is a ‘true love’ and cling to anyone who shows commitment and interest.
  • Undue Influence – Exploiters frequently use flattery, trickery, and deception to persuade elderly victims to comply with their demands.
  • MedicationsSome medications taken for common illnesses can contribute to deficits in cognition/judgment. Certain medications taken for Parkinson’s have also been known to alter impulse control.
  • Chronic/compliant victimization Studies show the more money a victim gives to a scammer, the more likely they are to keep giving. It is common to see people repeatedly send money in the hope of ‘one day’ getting a long-awaited return. 
  • Existing financial vulnerabilityMany elderly citizens are surviving only on social security and/or small pensions or savings. Promises of grants, lotteries, or loans can seem like ‘timely’ financial help that is hard to walk away from.

These underlying issues largely lie outside older adults’ control, making it crucial not to blame those who fall prey to scams or fraud. Victims often find it difficult to share information about their losses out of fear of judgment or accusation. To feel safe broaching the topic, victims need to feel their family members will support them unconditionally. 

When supporting an elderly person who has been victimized by a scammer, invest time to find out the nature of the loss, gather as much information as possible about the scam(s) and perpetrator(s), and develop an accurate assessment of losses, loans, other debt accumulated.

Once the details are determined, help your loved one report the crimes and adjust their living budget. Then you can begin to deal with creditors and work to protect remaining assets and income, in addition to setting up safeguards to defend against future scams.

We would like to acknowledge the Los Angeles Scam Working Group and Bet Tzedek, whose research informed this article.