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Why Older Adults Are More Vulnerable to Scams

Elderly people are often victims of scams and scam artists. Now we know why.

The link between memory problems and scams
A study reported by the American Psychological Association (APA) reveals that older adult are 10 times more likely to remember false information — and believe it’s true — than younger adults.

Researchers also learned that older adults who were tested did not remember test information correctly and did not know that their answers were incorrect.

How the scam test was done
The study, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, compared 24 older adults (average age 75) with 24 younger adults (average age 19). In the test, the two groups were given a series of memory tests that were designed to mimic a scam situation:

  1. Both groups were given a list of related word pairs, for example: “knee bone.”
  2. Both groups were then given a new list of word pairs. Some of the pairs in the second list were the same as the first, some were completely different, and some pairs contained only one of the words in the previous pair, but the pair also made sense, such as “knee bend.”
  3. Older adults in the study were 10 times more likely to report that the incorrect pair containing the same first word was the same as on the first list. Here's an example of how this might look in a real-life scam situation:
    A salesperson perpetrating a scam might give an elderly customer a low price at first, raise the price during the discussion, and the elderly customer might “remember” and believe that the two prices were the same.

  1. During testing, older adults consistently remembered the lists incorrectly, even when they were given more time to study them.
  2. And when test subjects were given the option to “pass” when they weren’t sure of an answer, the older adults rarely took advantage of that option, which reduced the accuracy of their answers.

The combination of not remembering correctly and being unwilling to admit there’s a problem can make older adults especially vulnerable to scam artists.

Want to avoid scams? Get everything in writing
The researchers reported a high degree of variability among the older test subjects, indicating that some older adults are more vulnerable to memory problems than others. Adults with more severe memory problems are more vulnerable to scams.

Researchers stressed that the overall results of these tests illustrate the importance of getting everything in writing to avoid being the victim of a scam.

When getting an estimate for repair work, for example, don’t accept a verbal estimate. Get it in writing, including any warranties for labor and parts. After you have repairs done, keep written receipts in a file in case you encounter a problem later.

It’s also good to keep written records of your finances, including bank account numbers and safe deposit boxes. Give a trusted family member or friend access to your paperwork in case you become ill or injured.

Whether you have memory problems or not, it’s a good idea to protect yourself from scams by making sure you get important information in writing.

Jacoby, L. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, May 2005; vol 134: pp 131-148.
News release from the American Psychological Association

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