Elderly scam victims have lower cognitive skills and are less honest

Globe and Mail


Elderly people who are victims of scams typically have lower cognitive skills, are less conscientious and are less honest, a recent Ontario study has found.

Rebecca Judges, doctoral researcher from University of Toronto and co-author of the study, says researchers were surprised to find victims themselves are more likely to be less honest.

“We were actually expecting the opposite when it came to honesty,” she said. “We thought honest people would expect others to be honest … And be vulnerable in that sense.”

Ms. Judges says she’s not sure why less honest people are more likely to be scammed, but has a theory that honest people are better at noticing corrupt situations.

The study was conducted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, with researchers from U of T and Ryerson University in Toronto. They surveyed about 150 healthy Ontarians over the age of 60, most of whom lived independently.

Overall, they found that cognitive performance “was the most important factor in predicting fraud victimization,” Ms. Judges said.

Cognitive ability – things like memory, verbal reasoning and numeracy skills – declines over time, she said, so someone who has trouble following something like a telephone conversation from start to finish is likely to be an easy target for a person trying to deceive them.

The results, which run counter to the commonly-held belief that loneliness and being too trustworthy are the leading cause of elder scams, are important because there are ways to improve cognitive skills, whereas behavioural aspects are hard to change, she said.

“Social behaviours can be very difficult to change but when it comes to cognitive skills, there is evidence that we can train these skills,” Ms. Judges said. “So there is kind of this possibility of prevention through training.”

Dr. Lixia Yang, a researcher on the study from Ryerson, agrees.

“We are looking at different programs, like training programs, prevention, intervention programs to help older adults to maintain their cognitive function and, hopefully by doing that, we can reduce the chance to be victimized,” Dr. Yang says.

Elder scams are a recurring issue in Toronto. According to the Toronto Police Service, there were 818 frauds/identity thefts reported by Toronto residents over 65 in 2016.

Jason Peddle, vulnerable persons co-ordinator at the Toronto Police Service, says elder scams are an under-reported crime, with only about 1 in 40 admitting they’ve been duped. He says this is because victims tend to fear the embarrassment or don’t want their children intervening in their affairs.

“The seniors are afraid that their independence is at risk if they admit to it,” Mr. Peddle says.

Erin Harris, chief operating officer of the Older Women’s Network (Ontario), says categorizing those who are scammed as dishonest can be harmful to the elderly.

“When you start condemning … criticizing and cataloguing with older people, you’re reducing their ability to represent themselves,” she says.