By James Toomey
When the world went into lockdown in March 2020, many commentators noticed that social isolation could offer scammers an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of people’s fear and loneliness. But they didn’t anticipate that fraud would generally affect a range of age groups. Indeed, much like the virus itself, the risks of frauds and scams related to the COVID pandemic were thought primarily to affect older adults.
This assumption seems to have been wrong. Recently, I conducted a study on the prevalence of scam-victimization during the pandemic across age groups. Specifically, I recruited two populations — one of adults between 25 and 35 and one of adults over than 65—and asked whether they had been contacted by people making specific fraudulent promises during the pandemic, and whether they’d engaged with the scammer by giving personal information, sending money, or clicking a link. In the study populations, the younger group engaged with scammers three times more frequently than the older group — a disparity that was statistically significant and persisted regardless of how I sliced the data.
Notwithstanding the study’s limitations (a relatively small population recruited online), these results defy conventional wisdom on the shape of the problem of scams, both in the pandemic and more generally. Indeed, the pandemic-focus on seniors’ fraud vulnerability built on a growing movement in law and the public sphere to treat scams directed at seniors differently — as a social problem unto itself, worthy of a discrete legal solution, primarily because of seniors’ perceived unique vulnerability to scams. Indeed, these assumptions have apparently led to the federal Protecting Seniors from Emergency Scams Act, which passed in the House last April.
In short, industry, media, and government have directed unique resources towards the problem of seniors falling victim to scams largely on the hypothesis that neurochemical changes that occur with aging make seniors especially susceptible to fraud pitches. If the results of my study are replicable, then — and generalize outside of the pandemic — they suggest that our understanding of the shape of fraud may be wrong.
So what do we do with this information? The answer may well turn out to be nothing. After all, the first step here is further research to determine whether in fact younger adults generally fall victim to scams more frequently than older adults, and, if so, why. Indeed, there was an interesting suggestion in qualitative responses to the survey about the causes of the age-disparity — several people in the older group indicated that they are aware of the problem of senior scams and that they take affirmative measures to avoid falling victim, whereas the younger participants seemed to be less guarded. This suggests that it could be that seniors are more vulnerable to scams in the abstract, but that efforts to raise awareness among seniors specifically over the past several years have been successful.
Moreover, there might be reasons other than greater susceptibility for the law to treat scams that victimize seniors differently — it might be, for instance, that because seniors are categorically more likely to be retired and living on limited funds, it is qualitatively worse to take advantage of them. And maybe we just think it is deontologically worse to take advantage of our society’s elders.
But it also could be that treating scams against seniors differently than scams against other adults is more invidious. Indeed, although it is uncontroversial that people undergo changes in cognition as they age, the idea that these changes cause older adults to be duped more often by scammers in the real world may be gaining the traction that it has in part because of its overlap with ageist stereotypes that caricature older adults as hapless and confused. And treating a class of persons differently in the law — even if out of a benevolent motivation — risks patronizing them whether or not the generalizations on which it is based are empirically grounded.
The stakes here are not merely aesthetic. Legal efforts to prevent senior financial scams make it harder for older adults to quickly access their money, and we can speculate that public efforts to raise awareness of senior scams as a discrete problem could lead to family members — with the best of intentions — more aggressively second-guessing the financial decision-making of older adults than they ought to.
In sum, the ultimate policy payoffs of these findings must await further empirical research and normative theorizing. But they are at least suggestive that a central empirical assumption of the threat of scams during the COVID era may be deeply misguided. We cannot straightforwardly assume that older adults are the most vulnerable to the scams of the pandemic and that the costs and challenges of fraud are borne primarily by them. And indeed, to the extent that our policy response to pandemic frauds depends on that assumption, it may need to be reconsidered.