Wendy McHaney writes a column about senior and elderly issues for the Victoria Advocate.

My daughter got her first cellphone a few months ago, and her new phone number apparently once belonged to someone who owes money to various entities. She also got a call from a scammer informing her that she has won some sort of lottery but must pay a certain amount upfront for taxes to receive the funds.

I figured this out not long after she had the phone and saw that she had received almost 30 voicemails in one day, and I quickly got her a new phone number. When I asked her about the lottery win call, she told me that she knew it was fake because who would give money to someone they didn’t know just because they promised to give them more money back.

As it turns out, this ability to recognize and resist a scam may be affected by aging, which may explain why so many seniors fall victim to con artists. While some studies suggest that the subtle changes affecting thinking and judgment could be a sign of dementia, it might actually just be normal aging, or a condition known as “age-associated financial vulnerability.”

Some recent studies have shown that many scam victims do not show significant cognitive impairment, even years later. Neurological and psychological data suggests that as we age, our ability to detect sketchy situations may decline, as well as the ability to push back on a high-pressure predator.

One study focused on the brain structure of elderly folks who had been scammed as compared to those who had successfully avoided scams. One region, known as the insula, was significantly smaller in scam victims’ brains. This area provides the signal that a situation isn’t quite right, and if it is smaller, the signal may not be as noticeable.

But researchers emphasize that the financial vulnerability also involves social and environmental factors like social isolation. Twenty percent of older people admit that when they talk about money with others, it’s out of loneliness. People engage with a scammer because it’s someone to talk to.

Some steps to take to avoid being scammed include never sending money or giving out personal information such as credit card numbers, bank account numbers, dates of birth or Social Security numbers.

To check a telemarketer’s legitimacy, ask for the company’s name and address, along with a phone number where they can be reached at a later time. For elderly widows, if a caller asks for the man of the house, don’t say that there isn’t one or indicate that you live alone.

Talk to family and friends or call your lawyer, accountant or banker and get their advice before you make any large purchase or investment over the phone with a stranger.

And finally, don’t forget that you have the power to simply hang up the phone when a stranger calls trying to sell you something you don’t want.

Sources: Seniors’ Weakness for Scams May Be Warning Sign of Dementia/Chicago News/WTTW; “Age of fraud: Are seniors more vulnerable to financial scams?”, NPR, David Brancaccio, May 16, 2019; “Tips to Prevent Senior Scams,” Caregiver.com

Wendy McHaney is a certified senior adviser and the owner and director of operations of Senior Helpers. For more information about Senior Helpers, visit seniorhelpers.com/victoria.

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