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August 17, 2012

Why seniors may be more vulnerable to scams

It's no secret that senior citizens are a con artist's favorite target. They seem more trusting and more likely to fall for a scammer's pitch.

But why, exactly? Conventional wisdom holds that older people are more trusting and, because they are from a generation that came of age at a time when people were more honest, they don't question a scammer's “too good to be true” promises.

But maybe there's something more at work here. Researchers at the University of Iowa believe it all has to do with deteriorating brain function, a product of advancing years.

They say they’ve pinpointed the precise location in the human brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), that controls belief and doubt, and that is what explains why some of us are more gullible than others.

Direct evidence

“The current study provides the first direct evidence beyond anecdotal reports that damage to the vmPFC increases credulity. Indeed, this specific deficit may explain why highly intelligent vmPFC patients can fall victim to seemingly obvious fraud schemes,” the researchers wrote in the paper published in a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Statistics tend to support their conclusions. A study conducted for the National Institute of Justice in 2009 concluded that nearly 12 percent of people 60 and older had been exploited financially by a family member or a stranger. And a report last year by insurer MetLife Inc. estimated the annual loss by victims of elder financial abuse at $2.9 billion.

In 2006, ConsumerAffairs reported the case of an elderly Kansas man who lost $300,000 to the Canadian lottery scam over a four-year period. In an interview, his daughter said repeated intervention by family members and the police did little good, that her father could not conceive that someone would lie to him.  

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