How scammers are hacking emotions to target elderly consumers

Inside Subprime: December 1, 2017

By Caroline Thompson

It sounds like something out of a bad science fiction movie, but a study from the Stanford Center on Longevity has found that elderly consumers are more likely to fall for a scam that uses targeted emotional advertising. Fraudsters often prey specifically on older Americans, as studies have shown that the elderly are more likely to fall victim to scams due to their heightened suggestibility. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission estimates that 7.3 percent of adults between the ages of 65 and 75, and 6.5 percent of adults over the age of 75 were victims of a financial fraud in 2011.

Both seasoned scammers and the Stanford researchers have discovered that showing elderly adults misleading ads designed to invoke some kind of emotional response can manipulate them into making purchases, or giving out information they otherwise wouldn’t.

“When emotionally aroused, either excited or frustrated, older adults may be more susceptible to being victimized by scammers than are younger individuals,” said Ian H. Gotlib, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology and chair of the Stanford Psychology Department in an interview with Stanford News. “In the present study, they were more likely to want to pay for an item advertised misleadingly, regardless of how credible they believed the advertisement was.”

Researchers showed test subjects, ages 30-40 and 65-85 different deceptive advertisements which gave them either positive or negative emotional responses. The results were clear: older adults were not only more likely to be emotionally affected by the advertisements, but they were also more likely to buy the products being advertised, even though they did not find the ads to be very credible.

“When we examined younger adults separately, we did not find these same effects,” wrote the researchers. “Further, whereas in younger adults greater advertisement credulity was associated with greater intention to purchase the item, credulity and purchase intention were not significantly related in older adults.”

This is significant, as a 2014 study Allianz Life found that victims of financial elder abuse lose can lose around $36,000 on average in targeted emotional scams like this. Martha Deevy of the Financial Security Division at the Stanford Center on Longevity gave several steps anyone can take to avoid falling prey to false advertising:

  • Don’t get pressured into a time-crunch decision. “Individuals can protect themselves by pausing or waiting a few days before saying ‘yes,'” she said.
  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Never give out personal information over the phone.
  • Do background research on any person or organization asking for your money.

To read more about financial scams, check out these related pages and articles from OppLoans:


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