Study: Seniors not wired to detect deceit

By Celeste Tholen Rosenlof | Posted - Dec 24th, 2012 @ 8:25pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The brain functions of seniors, and even adults in their 50s, may increase the likelihood of them falling prey to scams, a new set of studies suggests.

A set of studies out of University of California, Los Angeles say that adults older than 55-years-old are more susceptible to fraud because they have a difficult time distinguishing visual communication cues that younger adults would deem untrustworthy.

The study, published in the Dec. 3 journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at 119 adults between 55- and 84-years-old and 24 adults with a mean age of 23. They were shown a series of photos of faces and asked to rate them on trustworthiness and approachability. In the second study, 44 participants of varying ages submitted to an fMRI brain scan while looking at those photos.

In the first study, older adults rated the faces more trustworthy and approachable. The brain scans in the second study offered an explanation: the anterior insula portion of the brain —l linked to disgust and helps individuals discern dishonesty — is less active in older adults than in younger adults.

Avoiding fraud:
  1. Ask questions: Ask for more information and references.
  2. Research before you invest: Investigate what outside sources are saying about the product or investment.
  3. Know the salesperson: Find out what you can about the person pitching the investment to you.
  4. Be wary of unsolicited offers: Find current financial information from independent sources.
  5. Protect yourself online: Secure your email, be wary of what information is on your social media accounts and what you post elsewhere online.
  6. Know what to look for: Learn to recognize red flags of fraud.
For more information, visit

"Older adults seem to be particularly vulnerable to interpersonal solicitations, and their reduced sensitivity to cues related to trust may partially underlie this vulnerability," said study author and professor of psychology at UCLA Shelley E. Taylor in a press release.

The FBI suggests a few other reasons why seniors may be susceptible to fraud. In some cases, the FBI says seniors are targeted for their excellent credit and their tendency not to report fraud. Sometimes though, con artists can exploit a senior's tendency to stick to old-fashioned values of politeness and trust.

According to Taylor, senior citizens lost $2.9 billion in 2010 to financial exploitation, a 12 percent increase from 2008. The Federal Trade Commission estimates 25 million, or 11.2 percent, of adult Americans are fraud victims every year.

The anterior insula and its cognitive function of interpreting visual communication cues can begin deteriorating in a person's early-to-mid 50s. The prototypical financial fraud victim is a 55-year-old man with investment experience, Taylor said.

"It's people with money, who are comfortable with investing. Somehow they didn't get the early warning from their brain that said 'Don't invest in that movie, don't buy that land.' The financial losses can be huge," Taylor said.

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