Communication Self Improvement — 01 March 2015
What Makes Us Vulnerable to Scams?

The technological era that has bestowed upon us better communication tools, faster information flow, rapid response time and ease of interpersonal connection has also given rise to greater invasion of our privacy and ever evolving sophisticated scams that have left many sidelined, impoverished and deeply distraught. Why have so many people become vulnerable to scams?

Those who have not yet been scammed often view those who have as individuals who lack wisdom, caution or scrutiny, are naïve, old, or unsophisticated about today’s ways of the world. Though some of these attributions may be valid, our human quest for uniqueness, specialness and goodness towards others has contributed to oversights that enable scammers to exploit us.

UCLA Researcher Shelley Taylor studied younger and older adults’ ability to decipher other’s trustworthiness by viewing facial photographs and declaring these individuals as trustworthy, neutral or untrustworthy. Both younger and older subjects reacted very similarly to the trustworthy and the neutral faces. However, younger subjects reacted strongly to untrustworthy faces, while the older adults (54-83) did not. In a subsequent study using brain scans the researcher discovered that ”older adults do not have as strong an anterior insula warning signal that cautions them to ‘Be wary’ as do the brains of younger adults.”

Researchers at the University of Iowa discovered that gullibility to scams had to do with deteriorating brain function with advancing years. They identified the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the brain as controlling human belief and doubt, which explained why some individuals are more gullible than others.

The physiological brain changes that occur with age may also explain why older people are more prone to becoming victims of scams and thus are sought by scammers, though younger individuals, whose brains are still intact, can also be swayed as well.

A recent research done by the British Bankers‘ Association found that 16% of 18-25 year olds fell victim to the scam of transferring money to a “safe account” when instructed to do so by what they believed to be their bank, compared to 6% of 45-54 year olds and 7% of 55 year olds and older.

Though different allure tactics can victimize both younger and older people, psychologically we like to believe that we are special, lucky, and deserving of good fortune. Being “selected” for a prize, a treat, or given benefits only awarded to few chosen individuals flatters us enough to block suspicion and blind us from considering the notion that we may be scammed rather than rewarded.

Also, scammers capitalize on people’s kindness, generosity and caring for others and employ tactics to use our compassion to extract money or information from us that can be used against us.

To become safer:

  • Dispense with the notion that strangers see you as special and wish to reward you with extra benefits.
  • Verify a friend’s request for help.
  • Decline solicitors who contact you by phone, email, text or online.
  • Donate to organizations of your choosing through official sites.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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