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In these enlightened times, you may think that the average Internet user is too sophisticated to be suckered in by online scams. But cyber fraud and theft are growing rapidly despite constant efforts to educate users to the danger. A new study suggests why some people, especially the elderly, seem so susceptible.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft and fraud complaints jumped up to 1.8 million in 2011, a rise of 24.2% from 2010, and 4575 since 2001. The annual report from the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network doesn’t break down the (many) fraud categories by what’s online or not, but its a sure bet that many of these scams are conducted via the Internet.
Why Warnings Aren’t Enough
It is frustrating to see so many of these scams succeed, in some cases even after huge amounts of media coverage explicitly warning about the problem and how the fraud.
New research from the University of Iowa may suggest an explanation on why this keeps happening.
One of the models for how we believe something is true or not is the False Tagging Theory (FTT), which postulates that all ideas are initially believed to be true. Doubt rears its head only when a specific area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, “tags” an event or an idea as false. The University of Iowa team’s research found that when a very specific part of that area of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is damaged, the doubting system is not as efficient.
“Damage to this area of the brain causes a ‘doubt deficit’ that results in greater credulity,” the team wrote in the journal Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience. One of the ways the vmPFC can become damaged? Natural aging.
This would help to explain why so many fraud cases seem involved older citizens. A 2009 MetLife Mature Market Institute report, Broken Trust: Elders, Family and Finances, revealed that up to one million older Americans are victims of financial fraud each year, and that number is growing.
You would think that, having been around the block a time or two, the elderly might be less prone to fraud victimization. But if a victim’s cognitive mechanism that would normally see through a flam-flam job is not working properly, then it makes sense that they would be easier to fool.