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Are older adults more vulnerable to scams? What psychologists have learned about who’s most susceptible, and when

Natalie C. Ebner, University of Florida and Didem Pehlivanoglu, University of Florida, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

About 1 in 6 Americans are age 65 or older, and that percentage is projected to grow. Older adults often hold positions of power, have retirement savings accumulated over the course of their lifetimes, and make important financial and health-related decisions – all of which makes them attractive targets for financial exploitation.

In 2021, there were more than 90,000 older victims of fraud, according to the FBI. These cases resulted in US$1.7 billion in losses, a 74% increase compared with 2020. Even so, that may be a significant undercount, since embarrassment or lack of awareness keeps some victims from reporting.

Financial exploitation represents one of the most common forms of elder abuse. Perpetrators are often individuals in the victims’ inner social circles – family members, caregivers or friends – but can also be strangers.

When older adults experience financial fraud, they typically lose more money than younger victims. Those losses can have devastating consequences, especially since older adults have limited time to recoup – dramatically reducing their independence, health and well-being.

But older adults have been largely neglected in research on this burgeoning type of crime. We are psychologists who study social cognition and decision-making, and our research lab at the University of Florida is aimed at understanding the factors that shape vulnerability to deception in adulthood and aging.

Financial exploitation involves a variety of exploitative tactics, such as coercion, manipulation, undue influence and, frequently, some sort of deception.


The majority of current research focuses on people’s ability to distinguish between truth and lies during interpersonal communication. However, deception occurs in many contexts – increasingly, over the internet.

Our lab conducts laboratory experiments and real-world studies to measure susceptibility under various conditions: investment games, lie/truth scenarios, phishing emails, text messages, fake news and deepfakes – fabricated videos or images that are created by artificial intelligence technology.

To study how people respond to deception, we use measures like surveys, brain imaging, behavior, eye movement and heart rate. We also collect health-related biomarkers, such as being a carrier of gene variants that increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease, to identify individuals with particular vulnerability.

And our work shows that an older adult’s ability to detect deception is not just about their individual characteristics. It also depends on how they are being targeted.


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