Can You Trust Anyone? Why Seniors Fall Victim To Scammers They Know

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Scammers are happy to rob anyone of any age, but older adults tend to be their biggest target. Estimates show that over $28 billion disappears annually due to scams targeting older adults. While it’s easier to recognize a scam call or text from an unknown phone number, many older adults are actually scammed by people they know and trust. Researchers from the University of Florida explain that older individuals may be more vulnerable to these scams in particular because they have a harder time overcoming their first impressions of people’s trustworthiness, even when it becomes clear something is not right.

Study authors stress older adults need to look past first impressions, even if they happen to be positive, and observe whether or not an individual, friend, or even family member is really looking out for their best interests.

“We make these decisions about trustworthiness in a split second sometimes, and that is an unreliable way to make good decisions in the long term,” says Marilyn Horta, Ph.D., a University of Florida research scientist and first author of the new study, in a media release. “All of us, especially older adults, we need to really pay attention to how a person behaves rather than our initial perceptions of whether they look trustworthy or not.”

Elder Scam Call
While it’s easier to recognize a scam call or text from an unknown phone number, many older adults are actually scammed by people they know and trust. (© Andrey Popov –

This latest report detailing the psychology of trust and decision-making came together thanks to a simple gambling game in which participants choose from a deck of cards, either gaining or losing points depending on the card drawn. The more points someone accumulated, the more money they earned. However, researchers manipulated the decks. Some decks lured players in with big payouts followed by even bigger losses, while the “winning” decks offered more modest but predictable gains. The decks also featured pictures of faces, some of which looked trustworthy while others appeared untrustworthy.

The majority of both young and old participants initially went for cards represented by trustworthy faces. When a person started losing with the supposedly trustworthy cards, however, younger adults picked up on the trend much faster and switched to another deck of cards in hopes of better outcomes.

For the elderly, it took most of the game to recognize the need for a change in strategy; they seemingly favored their first impressions of trust, ultimately obscuring that those cards were a poor choice. Younger participants had an average age in the early 20s, while the older cohort averaged between 70 and 75 years-old.

“Often fraud happens through family members. If family members start acting untrustworthy, older adults are potentially not picking up on that change in behavior as well,” Prof. Ebner explains. “They’re not adjusting to the new situation as much.”

“One advantage we have in older age is the accumulation of life experience. But there might be situations where relying on previous experiences pushes us in the wrong direction, and we make the wrong decision,” the researcher concludes. “We have to stay aware even if we think we know who we can trust.”

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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