Seniors vs Cyber Scammers


elderly woman receiving a call from a cyber scammer

The landscape of online scams has transformed dramatically. Gone are the days when scammers sent poorly written emails promising wealth from foreign princes. Modern scam artists have leveled up their craft, consistently targeting and exploiting vulnerable victims, particularly the elderly.

Scammers might pose as fundraisers, soliciting donations for fake charity causes, or impersonating government workers, asking for sensitive information or payments to resolve fake tax issues. Even matters of the heart are not spared. Scammers often create online dating profiles and will engage in weeks, months, or even years-long relationships with their targets. Their sophisticated methods have drained many unsuspecting victims of their life savings.

The ramifications of fraud reach far beyond mere financial strain on victims. The mental health repercussions can be severe. Fraud can erode relationships within families and often leads to persistent psychological symptoms, such as stress, anger, depression, and even suicidal ideation. Some victims report experiencing physical health ailments, including stress-induced skin conditions like psoriasis and hives, as a consequence of fraud. Research has also suggested that victims experience elevated blood pressure after experiencing fraud.

The rapidly evolving nature of online scams and the profound impact they have on victims motivated the research by Lei Yu and colleagues. Their team explored the vulnerability of older Americans to government impersonation scams. Over 600 participants were targeted with deceptive materials through mail, emails, and phone calls by research team members posing as U.S. government officials. Participants then completed assessments to gauge financial literacy and scam awareness. Because of the deceptive nature of the study, participants were debriefed after the study and were given a presentation on financial fraud and scams.

Arming older adults with financial literacy and scam awareness through awareness campaigns can empower them to better detect fraudulent schemes, reducing their vulnerability to fraud.


Roughly 16% of older adults fell victim to the scam without showing any skepticism, with three-quarters of this group going so far as to divulge the last four digits of their social security number. Another 15% engaged with the scam by answering the phone or replying to mail/email but were skeptical about the messages’ legitimacy and refrained from providing personal information. Most of the group (68%) did not engage with the scam altogether, leaving mail, emails, or phone calls unanswered.

Participants who approached the scam with skepticism showed the highest cognition and financial literacy. Conversely, the group who engaged without skepticism showed the lowest scam awareness.

In 2022, Americans over 60 years old reported losing $1.6 billion to fraud, an enormous uptick from the $1 billion the year before. In a bid to shield older adults from escalating threats of fraud, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued a report recommending Congress reinstate the commission’s authority to recover funds lost to scammers. The report attempts to counteract a recent Supreme Court ruling significantly curtailing the FTC’s ability to reclaim funds lost by older adults and other consumers to scammers.

The FTC’s ability to recover lost funds is essential, but it doesn’t tackle the root problem. Arming older adults with financial literacy and scam awareness through awareness campaigns can empower them to better detect fraudulent schemes, reducing their vulnerability to fraud. This, in turn, can help American seniors safeguard their savings and financial well-being.

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