Elder Fraud: Exploiting the Aging Human Brain     

One of the most insidious types of non-violent crime that occurs in American society is “elder fraud,” or deliberately duping seniors out of their hard-earned money by involving them in a scam, often via a fraudulent telemarketing pitch. According to the National Fraud Information Center, more than a third (34%) of all victims of telemarketing fraud who reported these incidents were over 60 years old, and it is believed that the vast majority of victims do not report these crimes. While fraud can happen to anyone, elder fraud is particularly destructive because seniors are rarely able to recover financially from fraudulent losses.

While there are many factors that contribute to seniors’ being taken by these scams (and being the most frequently targeted demographic as a result), including the fact that they tend to be home to receive telemarketing calls, and they are often afraid to appear impolite by hanging up, there may also be a psychological effect of the aging of the brain that also contributes to the problem.

According to recent research funded by the National Institute on Aging by Dr. Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California, there is evidence that older adults process negative information differently than their younger counterparts. In a recent experiment with collaborator Dr. Mike Kisley, both older and younger adults were shown a series of negative images (such as dead animals) or positive images (such as bowls of ice cream), and the degree to which brain activity increased was recorded. Simply put, older adults are more likely to be less responsive to negative or unpleasant information, making them happier people – but also making them more likely to miss the “red flags” of a skilled fraudulent telemarketer.

Wood says, “As a group, older adults are less likely to be depressed and less affected by negative or unpleasant information. On the whole, while that is great news and perhaps something to look forward to, our research suggests that these changes in mood also have the potential to impact decision-making, sometimes with damaging results.”

Wood suggests that older adults be wary of the following:
· Solicitations that are presented with an impending deadline. When time-pressure increases, people tend to become less analytical and more impulsive.
· Solicitations under the guise of political or religious organizations. When emotions are involved, impulsiveness increases.
· Solicitations that arrive at “non-optimal” times of day—that is, times when older adults will likely be processing in less detail. Con artists tend to target people in the afternoon and evening.
· Solicitations that are accompanied by fine print or lots of details. Older adults often fail to read fine print and process other seemingly minute details.

Wood and Kisley’s research also involved the effects of gambling losses on younger and older adults. Wood says, “Younger adults learn very early to stay clear of the decks with high losses. Older adults are able to tolerate the losses and are more willing to risk future draws in hopes of a high payout. Indeed, older adults tend to do as well as younger adults by the end of the game. But when playing a "rigged" game, they may not be so fortunate.”

Dr. Wood is an expert on a number of issues related to aging and the brain, including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, decision-making, and maintaining autonomy. She has published extensively in peer-reviewed medical and psychological journals. Her work on decision-making is currently funded by a grant from the National Institute on Aging (R15 A021442-01). She holds a Ph.D. in clinical neuropsychology from the University of Houston.      
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