Researchers are coming to new conclusions as they dig into the question of what makes some people and not others fall victim to fraud and online scams.
Victims often hate to admit they’ve been conned, so research is difficult. Even so, experts estimate that $40 billion to $50 billion a year is lost to consumer fraud, says a study by the Financial Fraud Research Center at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity.
Victims: Not Who You’d Think
Some 30 million Americans are sucked into some type of financial fraud each year, says the American Psychological Association. Fraud comes in all shapes and sizes, from online dating-site deception, debt-collection scams, fake rental ads and worthless or nonexistent product sales to work-at-home schemes. (This Financial Fraud Research Center diagram gives a detailed breakdown.)
Victims include older people, yes, but also younger ones. Educated and undereducated. White-collar and blue-collar. Dumb people and smart ones. The Stanford study says:
An emerging conclusion in profiling research is that there is no generalized profile of a “typical” victim. Profiling studies that analyze victims by type of scam, however, have yielded a clearer picture of scam-specific profiles. In other words, while everyone is vulnerable, some people may be more vulnerable to particular scams than others.
AARP’s 2014 report, Caught in the Scammer’s Net, lists risk factors that make adults more likely to become victims of certain types of fraud. You’re likely to be targeted if you are:
1. A White Man
The typical victim of investment fraud is a man. He’s middle-aged, educated, financially literate and white, and he’s under financial pressure, psychologist Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity tells The American Psychological Association.
This makes sense, when you think about it. People who don’t ordinarily buy investments aren’t likely to fall for an investment scheme, or even to be offered it. In a phone interview with Money Talks News, Marti DeLiema, postdoctoral research fellow at the Financial Fraud Research Center, said:
Fraud victimization is really associated with exposure. The more you engage in the marketplace the more likely you are to be vulnerable. You have to be in the market for a product to get hooked.
Elders do get hit hard by scammers and they’re more likely to lose a significant amount of money to fraud, but generally that’s largely because scammers pick on them more.
Some susceptibility does come with age-related decline. Researchers have found that older people can have a harder time spotting liars, probably because of a decline in “emotional recognition,” or the ability to read others’ emotions accurately, the fraud researchers at the Stanford center said. But elders’ long experience in life also helps them spot fraud. On balance, they aren’t more susceptible than anyone else. DeLiema says:
We have found that older adults are disproportionately targeted, but once they are targeted they are not more likely to be victims. Most PSAs (public service announcements) are targeted at the elderly. Perhaps those messages are working, and maybe experience can outweigh cognitive decline.
Some services are marketed as useful to helping keep elders safe from fraud.
Contrary to popular wisdom, younger adults actually are more vulnerable than older people, according to research by Judy Van Wyk of the University of Rhode Island and Karen A. Mason of Washington State University in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. People 18 to 25 stood a 77% chance of becoming victims compared to people 65 to 75, who had a 44% chance, according to the study.
Scam artists alter their tactics depending on the unique vulnerability of their targets, says DeLiema. A young woman might not fall for a “grandparents scam” (in which con artists pose as a grandchild in trouble) but she might fall for a weight loss scheme or a juice cleanse or an anti-aging cream because she feels insecure about aging.
4. Living in Florida
Florida is the top state for consumer fraud complaints, with about 1,000 complaints per 100,000 residents, according to Federal Trade Commission data.
Florida’s dubious distinction may be because of its larger population of seniors, who are frequent targets of fraudsters. Other states with high rates of fraud include: Texas, New Jersey, Arizona, California, Maryland, Delaware, Michigan, Nevada and Georgia.
The AARP’s 2014 report says that 66% of victims say that they “often or sometimes feel isolated.”
Dating sites are prime territory for fraud, partly because online encounters blur the lines between real and Internet relationships, says another AARP article. Loneliness can make people vulnerable to believing that their prayers have been answered, even when a “dream partner” met online is too good to be true.
The article tells how Enitan, a former scammer, worked:
Using stolen credit card numbers, the scammer would flood dating sites with fake profiles. Victims can be found anywhere — scammers also forage for connections on social media — but dating services provide the most fertile territory. Profile photos are pirated from social media or other dating sites. To snare women, he’d pose as older men, financially secure and often in the military or in engineering professions. For male victims, he just needed a photo of an alluring younger woman: “Guys are easier to convince — they’re a bit desperate for beautiful girls.” The common thread: loneliness. All his victims, Enitan says, described themselves as divorced or widowed. “The lonely heart is a vulnerable heart.”
RomanceScams.org, devoted to fighting online dating fraud, tells how to recognize a dating scam and how to proceed if you are a victim.
6. On the Internet
To many people, telemarketers are linked to fraud, and for good reason: People who listen to telemarketers are more likely to get hooked, DeLiema says.
However, “the Internet has consistently been the most frequently reported method of contact for fraud victimization in recent years,” according to a Financial Fraud Research Center paper, Scams, Schemes and Swindles.
7. Interested & Open
Financial con artists don’t get far with people who are introverted or careful. Victims are more likely to be open, agreeable and extroverted. Research by FINRA’s Investor Education Foundation (FINRA is the Financial Institution Regulatory Authority) finds that:
- Victims of affinity fraud (scams among members of close-knit groups) more often are people who are a bit neurotic and open to new experience.
- Those hit by investment fraud often are extroverted, conscientious and open to new experience. Openness especially is linked to larger financial losses.
An inclination to take risks is, understandably, another trait associated with fraud victims, DeLiema says.
In other words, victims are people you’d like to know. Or maybe someone like you.
8. In Debt
Being in debt makes you vulnerable to scam artists who prey on people looking for a way out of a difficult situation. Scam artists can be hard to identify because they pose as legitimate businesses. Be particularly wary of businesses offering debt consolidation and help negotiating with creditors. Scammers also often insert themselves into the businesses of mortgage refinancing and foreclosure counseling.
People in desperate situations grasp at straws. Con artists know this and show up for immigrants who need help with their legal status, for example, or for victims of natural disasters who are willing to pay for help filing a claim, finding a home or getting home repairs. One rule of thumb: Never engage a contractor who shows up uninvited to your home.
Most of us are a bit vulnerable, in one way or another. Scams are so prevalent today that almost anyone can get stung. A few of the AARP survey’s list of traits shared by vulnerable victims:
- Job loss
- Ignorance of bank procedures
- Downloading apps
- Clicking on pop-ups
How to Protect Yourself
Here are five tips on staying safe:
- Get inoculated: In “The 10 Golden Rules of Scam Prevention” Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson outlines tip-offs to cons and scams.
- AARP’s Fraud Watch Network is a good source for people of all ages to learn about new scams and find out how to spot them and to stay safe.
- The Fraud Watch state map links to law enforcement alerts and notices about scams in your state.
- Report fraud to the AARP Foundation Fraud Watch Helpline: 877-908-3360.
- Trust your gut: Back away and get time to think when you feel pressure to buy or invest, or even just simply if your radar goes off and you don’t know why. Offering something “only for a limited time” is often a tip-off to a con.
- Watch your emotions: If you see yourself getting emotionally worked up — scared, excited or suspicious — that’s a good time to take a break. Scammers stir up emotions to reel in victims.
This post originally appeared on Money Talks News.
More from Money Talks News:
- How to Protect Grandma and Grandpa From Nasty Scams
- How to Buy on Craigslist and Not Get Scammed
- Work-From-Home Scams Multiply: 10 Tips to Avoid Being a Victim