How gullible are older Americans to scams? Very, says a new study

There’s a sucker born every minute — and some of them live to a ripe old age.

Financial scams plague older Americans: A report from AARP estimates that each year fraud perpetrated by strangers costs older adults a staggering $8 billion.

However, a new study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago states that most research into fraud is limited by self-reported data, which may not reveal the full extent of the crimes.

So the Rush researchers developed a scheme where they imitated fraudsters and contacted 644 older adults in the Chicago area.

Their scam included phone calls, mailed materials and a phony website for a nonexistent US Retirement Protection Task Force, pretending to be a government agency that handles important government files related to Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The participants were told there was “unusual activity on their file” and the agency was reaching out to verify that the activity was authorized. This formed the backdrop for asking participants for personal information, closely imitating the tactics that grifters use to gather personal information.

The people in the clever scam were divided into three groups: People who neither answered the attempted phone call nor called inbound to the 800 number were classified as “no engagement.”

Grifters often target older people, who are surprisingly gullible when it comes to financial fraud.
Grifters often target older people, who are surprisingly gullible when it comes to financial fraud.
Getty Images

Participants who answered the phone or called in but were skeptical about the legitimacy of the outreach and refused to give away personal information were classified as “engagement.”

The third group included people who answered the phone or called in without skepticism, confirming that they did not change their information or who provided the last four digits of their Social Security numbers were classified as “conversion” (also known as “suckers”).

The researchers focused their study on the data collected during the phone calls because, according to the Federal Trade Commission, phone calls are the most common and most effective method used by fraudsters when targeting older adults.

Hundreds offered personal info

The final results of the study, published in JAMA Network Open, were somewhat encouraging: More than two-thirds (68%) of the 644 people contacted did not engage with the scam.

However, of the remaining 203 participants, 106 — more than half — fully engaged with the fraudsters and most of them happily revealed compromising personal information such as date of birth and Social Security numbers.

And while scammers often target people with cognitive disorders, many of the victims of this fraud had no cognitive issues.

“[T]hese numbers are astounding and suggest that a very large number of older adults are at risk of victimization, far exceeding findings previously observed in survey data,” the study authors wrote.

Fraud costs older Americans up to $8 billion each year.
Scammers have found that telephone calls are the most effective way to get people to reveal personal information.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

“These estimates likely are on the low side given that we used a fictitious government agency name.
Fraudsters create more compelling scams by impersonating real government agencies and organizations.”

How to avoid a scam

The FTC offers several tips for recognizing and avoiding a scam: Pretending to be from a recognized government agency, such as Medicare or the IRS, or a local agency like a utility company, is a common grifter tactic.

Caller ID isn’t much help, since scammers can easily identify themselves by fraudulent names on caller ID systems.

Typically, the fraud involves a prize that you’ve won or a problem with one of your accounts. Callers may also say that there’s a virus on your computer, or that a family member needs your help, so please send money.

If you seem even somewhat hesitant, scammers will often apply some pressure, saying they need a response immediately, which prevents a potential victim from checking out their story.

They may also need money from a victim in a particular way, such as deposited into a specific account, sent through Western Union, using cryptocurrency, or a payment app like Zelle or Venmo.

Blocking unwanted calls can help to a degree, but in all cases, don’t provide personal information to a caller you cannot independently identify.

And don’t feel pressured to act immediately. Instead, if you were scammed or think you saw a scam, tell the FTC at