CLBB student research interns Julia Hall and Justin Wong on COVID-19 Fraud Threatens Older Adults in Medium
Covid-19 scams target older adults in order to gain access to their personal information
Along the rapid spread of COVID-19, related opportunistic scams have quickly proliferated, and older adults are particularly susceptible to them. Both online and in person, fraudsters exploit older adults to obtain their personal and financial information. They have offered governmental aid and medical supplies, such as face masks, home test kits and vaccinations that do not yet exist, exploiting the sudden and anxious surges in demand. They have also sought out seniors in grocery stores to deliver their groceries, requested charity donations, and gone door-to-door impersonating health officers offering COVID-19 testing.
Why are these scams particularly dangerous to older adults? In general, people over 65, are more likely to be targeted by fraudsters and to lose money to financial fraud than someone in their 40s. Seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion annually to financial exploitation. Fraudsters target the elderly because they are considered to be a naïve segment of the population and may be lonely, willing to listen, and more trusting than younger individuals.
Neuroscience helps shed light on why older adults are particularly vulnerable right now. Cognitive decline associated with aging may predispose older adults to being victims of fraud. As people age, brain size and structure, vasculature, and cognition change, causing declines inconceptual reasoning, mental flexibility, spatial reasoning, emotion regulation, memory, and processing speed. And the situation is worsened for those who experience pathological aging — Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is shown to correlate with low scam awareness and impaired financial capacity.
The onset of COVID-19 has increased both the number of scams and older adults’ susceptibility. During times of economic uncertainty and volatility, older adults are specifically targeted because they are likely to have high savings, good credit, and are less likely to report fraudulent behavior. Against this heightened threat of fraud, older adults are now socially isolated due to necessary social distancing, which decreases access to helpful resources and increases their vulnerability to scams. In addition, as a result of cognitive breakdowns to emotional triggers and declines in conceptual reasoning, older adults are left exposed by the extreme fear and uncertainty elicited by the pandemic.
The greater risk of COVID-19 to older adults may complicate late-life financial decisions. In general, 90% of perpetrators of elder fraud are known by the victim, with the majority being family members. Elder abuse has risen dramatically since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Recent reports of coronavirus-related brain ailments make this situation particularly tricky due to greater potential for opportunists to coerce older adults into making financial decisions in someone else’s best interest.
In response to the specific challenges posed by COVID-19, it is promising that government agencies have prioritized older adults by allocating federal disaster funding to provide meals, well-being checks, chores and delivery services. Additionally, local communities, such as Immediate Neighbors, Friends in the Neighborhood, or local councils and organizations offer older adults a reliable avenue for seeking help. U.S. Senators have even introduced a bill to protect older adults from scams directly related to COVID-19.
Sadly, neither elder fraud nor viral-related fraud is new, and there is an urgent need for more awareness and new solutions. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, regulators reported on an uptick in scams related to Ebola and recommended some general guidelines and instructions to avoid them, including the conventional advice of vigilance when handling money and personal information. The same is being done today, but it is not enough to prevent massive monetary losses, especially because non-profit organizations and senior centers across the US are also operating at lower capacity or closed to shield older adults from the virus.
In the midst of the looming risk, our work at the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior has shown us that the younger generation has the capacity to help. Given that older adults are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 related health complications and susceptible to fraud, we must do everything we can to protect our loved ones. Keeping vigilant with our older loved ones by watching out for changes in personality and daily functioning, checking in, and being wary of financial changes can reduce incidence of elder fraud.