Study shows large number of seniors vulnerable to benefits scams

Many seniors were shown to be vulnerable to scams, including via phone calls, according to research conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Photo by Sabine van Erp/Pixabay
1 of 4 | Many seniors were shown to be vulnerable to scams, including via phone calls, according to research conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Photo by Sabine van Erp/Pixabay

NEW YORK, Sept. 25 (UPI) -- Amid the rise in financial fraud and scams that target older adults, a new study found that many more individuals are vulnerable to them than presently recognized, posing serious public health and economic threats to society.

In a behavioral experiment mimicking a real-world government imposter, a considerable number of older adults engaged without skepticism. The results indicated that many, including those without cognitive impairment, are susceptible to fraud and scams.


The findings were published Friday in JAMA Network Open.

"It is critical that we as a society address the significant challenges associated with elder fraud, and this requires a better understanding of the scope of the problem and why some older adults are vulnerable," said neuropsychologist Patricia Boyle, the study's senior author.

Such awareness "is absolutely essential for developing strategies to protect older adults from bad actors," Boyle, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, told UPI via email.


"Ultimately, our goal is to inform prevention efforts so that we can protect and support the well-being of older adults and individuals of all ages," she said, noting that "in addition to financial losses, victimization also can lead to serious health consequences, including hospitalization and depression."

In the study, the authors pointed out that "research on the vulnerability of older adults to fraud and scams relies almost exclusively on self-reported data, which have several intrinsic limitations. Thus, how older adults truly respond to fraud attempts remains unclear."

To gain a better understanding of the problem a fictitious government agency reached out to older adult communities in the greater Chicago metropolitan area from October to December 2021 about "a potential compromise of personal information relevant to their Social Security and Medicare benefits."

Those contacted were among older adults participating in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing cohort study of chronic conditions of aging.

The experiment included a total of 644 older adults -- 501 female and 143 male -- with an average age of 85.6 years.

"Participants were exposed to deceptive materials through mailers, emails and phone calls by a live agent," according to the study.

"Based on the phone call data, participants were classified into three groups: no engagement (participants who did not answer the phone or call in); engagement (those who answered or called in but were skeptical about the legitimacy of the outreach and did not give away personal information); and conversion (participants who answered or called in without skepticism, or confirmed that they did not change their personal information, or provided the last four digits of their Social Security number)."


The data analysis, performed from February to August, found that a total of 441 (68.5%) participants did not engage, 97 (15.1%) engaged but raised skepticism, and 106 (16.4%) converted.

"Older adults who engaged but with skepticism had the highest cognition and financial literacy, while those in the conversion group had the lowest scam awareness," the study noted. "No differences were observed in psychological and other behavioral measures by the levels of engagement."

The study cast a spotlight on financial fraud aimed at older adults, Dr. Meera Sheffrin, who was not involved in the research, told UPI in a telephone interview.

Sheffrin is a clinical associate professor of geriatrics at Stanford School of Medicine and medical director of the Senior Care clinic in Palo Alto, Calif.

These scams are a form of elder abuse, particularly when they affect elderly individuals with cognitive issues or dementia, she said, adding, "I'm glad more attention is being paid to [to the issue of] scammers who are preying on vulnerable adults."

Sheffrin noted that "our estimation of how often this occurs only relies on people or families making formal complaints. However, many times people are either too embarrassed to admit that they were the victim of a scam, or a near-victim of a scam, or they're too busy trying to undo all the damage that making a formal report is the last thing on their minds."


Despite the study's raising awareness of a significant societal issue, she questioned the ethics of investigators' approach of impersonating a fake government agency in an attempt to trick people into revealing personal information.

Participants were not told that they might be contacted or that this study was occurring. They were only told afterward during an educational session about financial scams that target older adults.

Another expert, however, emphasized the important data the study generated.

"This is an important and understudied problem that may disproportionately affect underrepresented groups, as older adults are a high-risk group for such scams," Dr. John A. Batsis, who was not involved in the study, told UPI via email.

Batsis is an associate professor of medicine in the geriatrics division at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Medicine.

"It is really scary to see this type of data presented, as I think this is the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We need to be mindful of the challenges our vulnerable populations are facing, particularly when they are contending with reduced social support and medical comorbidities."

These results still have to confirmed in other populations that may be at higher risk and particularly in people outside of this Rush Memory and Aging Project, Batsis said. "As the authors note, further investigation in groups with low financial literacy and in persons with dementia are needed."


The study was well-designed with clear outcomes, revealing that 16% of participants engaged in the scam without skepticism, Dr. R. Osvaldo Navia told UPI via email.

Navia is the division chief of geriatrics, palliative medicine and hospice at West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W. Va.

"The study is reflecting a painful realty for older people who are still trusting in a phone call to get contact with the outside world, making them ideal victims for unscrupulous people," he said.

A weakness of the study, Navia said, was the limited inclusion of minority groups. As a result, he said, it most likely doesn't accurately capture the full extent of financial scams' impact on society. Another downside to the study it lasted only three months.

Nonetheless, Navia said, "this study is telling us the older adults are prone to scams and financial abuse, and probably, these issues are under-reported. In addition to cognitive deficits, limited social network, social isolation and loneliness are real factors making older people ideal targets for scams."

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