Lonely Seniors are More Vulnerable to Fraud

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COVID has created perils that go beyond just the threats to our health. Reports to the FTC of financial fraud and identity theft shot up 68 percent in the first two years of the pandemic – double the pace during the previous five years combined.

Older adults with fading memories and declining cognition have always been especially susceptible to fraud. But the pandemic, by forcing them into isolation, may have worsened their vulnerabilities.

That’s one takeaway from a new study showing that older Americans who report feeling lonely or suffering a loss of well-being are more susceptible to fraud. The study, based on pre-pandemic surveys of people over 65, is also highly relevant post-pandemic and indicates that interventions to reduce social isolation might be effective in blunting their vulnerability.

For retirees with “high life satisfaction and fulfilled social needs,” the researchers said, “fraudulent opportunities promising wealth, status or social connection may be less appealing.”

The analysis relied on the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which monitors retired Chicago-area residents for signs of cognitive decline and its aftereffects. The periodic surveys include questions such as “If a telemarketer calls me, I usually listen to what they have to say” and “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

The surveys also measure loneliness, asking participants to agree or disagree with statements like “I miss having a really close friend” or “I often feel abandoned.” Well-being was determined by whether the individuals had a sense of self-acceptance and purpose, autonomy, mastery of their surroundings, and personal growth.

After showing that loneliness and a lack of well-being increased the susceptibility to fraud, the researchers set out to find out what could be done if the problem were addressed. Given the absence of sustained and widespread national intervention programs to reduce loneliness or prevent fraud, they used the Rush data to simulate what might happen if some type of intervention were to succeed in improving retirees’ well-being.

For example, assuming everyone’s well-being was raised to the highest possible score – 7 out of 7 – sharply reduced the chances of being susceptible to scams compared with the average susceptibility of all the people in their database. The effects were strongest in the first two of the seven years of simulated interventions.

Reducing everyone’s loneliness to low levels also had especially positive early effects – as one would expect – for single, divorced, or widowed retirees. The biggest benefit came from raising everyone’s well-being and minimizing their feelings of loneliness.

This study is a start on thinking about what can be done to help older adults who are increasingly being inundated with suspicious text and email solicitations. Programs “that enhance social engagement, self-efficacy, and a sense of purpose” might be a way to help them, the researchers said.

To read this study, authored by Aparajita Sur, Marguerite DeLiema, and Ethan Brown, see “Contextual and Social Predictors of Scam Susceptibility and Fraud Victimization.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

Geoffrey Hewitt

Do not answer scam telephone calls; if you do not recognize the number do not answer. Same with any email you receive. If call is legit they will leave a message no scammer ever does.

    Edna Dambe

    Thank you for this comment as I have been receiving calls from the ‘Amazon Customer Services Team’ while knowing fully that I’ve never ordered or bought anything from them.
    I feel the super late night calls are deliberately timed when one’s reflex will simply answer without checking the number.

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