Social psychologist Michael Ross, a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, said studies by neuroscientists and psychologists have long suggested that older people may be more susceptible to fraud because of poorer memories and more trusting natures.
"But in these studies, they never actually assess consumer fraud," Ross said in an interview Tuesday.
"In study after study, what these researchers are showing is that older people have a potential vulnerability to consumer fraud. But they're not looking at whether in the real world, consumer fraud is more prevalent among older people.
"What you're showing is vulnerability, you're not showing actual prevalence."
Ross, who was to present his findings Tuesday at a Toronto conference on memory, said the idea that seniors are more likely to fall prey to tricksters has also been perpetuated by policing agencies, including the FBI.
That U.S. agency, he said, suggests that people who grew up in the 1940s and '50s were raised in a "kinder and gentler" time that makes them more trusting and less able to say no to possibly dicey financial propositions, such as "miracle" diet pills or the need for a new roof or other home renovation.
Not only is that a vast generalization, but it assumes that people don't change over their lifetime, he said.
More than 13,200 Canadians reported to police that they'd been victims of mass-marketing scams last year, resulting in an overall loss of almost $58 million, says the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. That amount is thought to be only a fraction of the actual total, as such crimes are typically vastly under-reported.
In his study, Ross used a number of data sources to assess whether seniors are more often conned out of money by fraudsters compared to other age groups.
Among those sources were nine surveys, most from the U.S., which asked respondents representing all adult age groups about their experiences with consumer fraud. The surveys showed that older people reported less fraud compared with younger age groups, he said.
Looking at annual complaints complied by the U.S. Consumer Sentinel Network, Ross found that seniors are less likely to contact the FBI, the Better Business Bureau or other agencies about being a victim of fraud than were younger adults.
"And in recent years, middle-aged adults are the most likely to complain about fraud," he said.
An examination of victim lists gathered by prosecutors shows that different types of scams tend to target different age groups. For instance, one study found young adults were more often affected by online fraud, while middle-aged adults were more likely to be caught up in dating scams.
For seniors, the most common type of fraud was a prepayment scam — such as being told they have won a $10,000 lottery but need to pay a certain fee before their full prize can be claimed.
"I think there's an old-age stereotype that suggests that older people are weaker and more gullible," said Ross. Yet research shows that seniors overall are more careful about spending their money, make fewer large purchases and are generally risk-averse — making them less likely to be defrauded.
"I'm not prepared at this point to shout from the rooftops that consumer fraud is less prevalent among older people. There are a variety of reasons to suspect that it might be," he said.
"But I also want to say very firmly and clearly that there's no evidence that it's more prevalent, which seems to be the conventional wisdom and the psychological wisdom."
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