Why Seniors Are Easy Targets: The Psychology of Scammers
One in every five Americans over 65 are taken in by scammers. The criminals who scam elders like your mom or dad are professionals. It’s their job, and some people claim they study their reprehensible craft day and night. Their sole purpose is to rip people off, and no doubt about it, they are very, very good at it. They seem to be as intelligent and well educated in their line of work as any doctor or lawyer is in his or her respective profession. The rest of us often underestimate them, and the crooks like it that way because it makes their jobs easier. Our parents are literally nothing to them but a payday or even a game. Often they get an adrenaline rush from defrauding others, and a sense of triumph or victory. Put bluntly, they’re predators.
Some people who perpetrate fraud indulge in what therapists call “selective disengagement of moral self-sanction from inhumane conduct.” What a mouthful! This means they use mental games to ignore internal messages meant to stop them from hurting others. I theorize that they often use worthy ends such as the need to support a family in a hostile economic environment to socially and morally justify hurting our parents. They downplay the harm they cause and even blame the victims for bringing the problems on themselves. Others are sociopaths who lack a conscience and simply don’t care what happened to others. Either way, or through a combination of these two elements, our elder loved ones don’t stand a chance against these people unless we help them.
A scammer makes contact with a potential elderly victim, and then begins building a manipulative web of lies carefully designed to make the senior believe they can gain money or help someone else. When an elderly person gets ripped off by a scammer, it isn’t about being stupid; it’s often about unmet needs like feeling lonely, worry about limited finances, or the desire to help others. Many people judge victims of frauds and scams as stupid, gullible, or some variation of these ideas. I disagree.
In my experience, seniors are easy prey for scammers because they have unmet needs. They may feel lonely, undervalued, bored, poor, or sincerely desire to help others. These needs make the ploy for the chance to win a bunch of money, bail a grandchild out of a foreign prison, or save a lot of money on driveway resurfacing sound like a good idea to a senior.
A certain level of unmet needs in an elder is normal, so please do your best to move beyond any guilt you may feel about this. We can’t possibly meet all of our needs as younger adults, let alone as we age. Virtually everyone experiences a discrepancy between their needs and what their life actually brings them. What we’re seeking to do here is understand more about the role unmet needs play in our parents’ vulnerability to criminals who want to use their discrepancies against them, and perhaps work with our elder loved ones to help them think more clearly and have fewer unmet needs.
Let’s face it—the perpetrators are better at their job of hurting people than the majority of elders currently are at staying safe. Most people will never be able to tell just by talking with someone whether or not that person is a criminal out to steal from them. The crooks are incredibly skillful at reeling in their victims without revealing their actual motives. Virtually everyone I’ve spoken with said the scammers were “very friendly” and “seemed totally honest.” So what can be done?
The most important you can do to protect your parents or other senior loved one is to educate them about scams. Have the conversations regularly in case Mom or Dad does not remember well. Ask them if they have gotten any suspicious phone calls or emails.
Make scam prevention and education a frequent topic just as you enquire about their health. Your goal is not to frighten your senior but to let them know you care about their welfare and want them to be smart and savvy where these crooks are considered.
Art Maines, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice and an expert in Elderly Fraud Recovery and Prevention. His new book Scammed: 3 Steps to Protect Your Elder Parents and Yourself, gives in-depth information on scam prevention and recovery.