Abstract glitch with word SCAM on 100 Dollar bill. Concept art for Online scam.

Rethinking Senior Scams?

By James Toomey

Many people, including, it seems, most advocates for law reform, assume that older adults are uniquely vulnerable to scams, and indeed that senior scams are a unique social problem demanding a unique legal solution. But in “The Age of Fraud” (forthcoming in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, winter 2023), about which I’ve blogged here before, I reported the results of an empirical study suggesting that, in fact, younger adults were as much as three times more likely to engage with scammers during the first year of the COVID pandemic than older adults.

One possible implication of this finding — if indeed it is generalizable — which I discuss but don’t commit to in the paper, is that more people are more vulnerable to scams — and the polished tactics of psychological manipulation used by scammers — than has been generally appreciated. But if scams are not a bounded problem of those who are in some sense more psychologically vulnerable (as older adults are thought of in, at least, the popular imagination), we might want to rethink scams — what they are, how we fight them, and how we treat and think about their victims.

With a June 2022 report from AARP and the FINRA Foundation, a winter 2022 piece by Anna Tims in The Guardian, and a fall 2021 column by John Gapper in the Financial Times making exactly this argument, this is an idea that’s gaining traction.

The argument AARP, FINRA, Tims, and Gapper make is that, for whatever reason, society and the law treat scams, in many ways, radically differently than many crimes, even other financial crimes. Indeed, people tend to think of avoiding scams as problem of personal responsibility — trusting individuals to not get scammed themselves. And, to some extent, many people feel that victims are partially responsible when they fall prey. Although of course it’s true that committing scams is a crime, and perpetrators are sometimes prosecuted, there is an enormous amount of social allocation of blame to the victims of scams themselves.

In short, many people seem to blame scam victims for falling for it, and think that they never would have fallen for it themselves. Indeed, many scam victims blame themselves. Some even report that the hardest part of falling victim is not necessarily the money they lost, or the bureaucracy they had to deal with to regain control of their financial identity, but the humiliation they feel for themselves in having been duped and feeling a fool. This is, needless to say, not how we think about the victims of robbery, extortion, or even Ponzi schemes.

Following the findings of “The Age of Fraud,” I’d hypothesize that this way in which we think of scams both feeds and is fed by the apparent misconception that they are a relatively bounded problem for older adults. On the one hand, thinking of scams as an issue of personal responsibility may lead us largely to reserve our sympathy for those scam victims thought less able to exercise the responsibility required — those who’d we think of as less at fault. Following prevalent ageist stereotypes of older adults as less intelligent and less discerning, commentators may assume that older adults are the most vulnerable.

And, at the same time, seeing senior scams as a uniquely prevalent problem can support the view of scams as a problem of personal responsibility. If it appears that as an empirical matter scams really are a problem mostly for older adults, then it might look like the personal-responsibility regime is more or less working for everyone else.

But “The Age of Fraud” suggests that it isn’t, and this foundational empirical assumption of our current societal approach to scams may be false. It simply might not be true that older adults are the most at risk of being victimized by scams, and, indeed, in my study cohort, the group of adults aged 25-35 engaged with scammers three times more than older adults. Importantly, scam engagement was high in both cohorts — around 12% in the younger group and 4% in the older group. It might be, then, that everyone — or at least a subset not easily circumscribed by a demographic variable such as age — is vulnerable to the tactics used by scammers.

If all this is right — and indeed more people are vulnerable to scams than they think they are — the argument made by AARP, FINRA, Tims, and Gapper becomes more powerful. Recognizing that anyone might be vulnerable to scams — regardless of age — might help adults of all ages sympathize with the victims of scams, understanding that they, too, could have been vulnerable.

Social views about fraud and scams would, no doubt, be difficult to change quickly. But perhaps it’s worth trying. Indeed, the current paradigm has two real shortcomings.

First, there are a lot of real people out there — all across the age spectrum — who are hurting right now, unable to forgive themselves for falling for a scam that maybe — in the right context, at the right time — anyone could have fallen for, too. Scams can be financially and emotionally devastating, and feeling that one only has oneself to blame cannot be helping.

And, for older adults, messaging around their unique scam vulnerability can be infantilizing, alienating, and paternalistic. Of course, if indeed they were the most vulnerable, that might be a small price to pay. But if they’re not — and, in part, ageism is what has led people to assume they were in the first place — these are real costs that need to be accounted for.

In the end, then, perhaps FINRA, AARP, Tims, and Gapper are putting forth an idea whose time has come. People tend think of scams as distinct from other crimes, as a problem of personal responsibility, as something for which the victims of scams deserve some fault — except when they target older adults. But maybe it’s time to reconsider.

James Toomey

James Toomey is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Prior to joining the faculty at Pace, James was a Climenko Fellow & Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. His scholarly work has appeared in the Virginia Law Review, the North Carolina Law Review, the Harvard Journal on Legislation and more.

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