In Brief

The cognitive changes that older adults face as they age make them particularly vulnerable to consumer fraud and scams, according to research results that University of Illinois psychology professor Denise Park, PhD, shared with members of the Senate's Special Committee on Aging at a July Capitol Hill hearing on aging and consumer fraud. University of California at Santa Cruz psychology professor Anthony Pratkanis, PhD, also spoke at the hearing.

In 2004, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received nearly 650,000 complaints about fraud and identity-theft incidents ranging from Internet scams to fraudulent sweepstakes to work-at-home scams. Nearly 150,000 of the complaints came from consumers age 50 and older, according to FTC Associate Director for Planning and Information Lois Greisman, who also spoke at the hearing.

Park's work helps explain why scam artists may target older consumers.

"With age, we become slower at processing information, our memory becomes somewhat less effective and our ability to take in a large quantity of information at one time and reason about it decreases," she explained. "Thus, when older adults are faced unexpectedly with offers to buy things or have repairs done, they have less ability than younger adults to process all aspects of the message that they are receiving."

Park's research also shows that older adults are more likely than younger adults to pay attention to positive information and overlook negative information, and that they are more likely to remember the gist of information and less likely to recall specific details. Both of these cognitive quirks can also contribute to falling victim to a scammer.

Pratkanis and his colleagues are developing educational materials and intervention strategies to help senior citizens avoid this fate. The researchers survey fraud victims and investigate scammers' techniques.

"The weapon that is used in fraud crimes is social influence," said Pratkanis. The most successful prevention strategies, he said, give potential victims specific warnings about the type of pressure they'll face and empower them to take control of their conversations with a scammer. The idea, Pratkanis said, is to "build a feeling of self-efficacy--a feeling that 'I can take charge of the situation and hang up.'"