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AARP Bulletin

Busted: Con Artists Exposed

An inside look at the worst frauds and how scammers target their victims

The Psychology of a Con Job 

Scammers know what we want: to feel secure, loved and valued. And they know that the older we get, the more we need peace of mind.

To provide it, some use sweet talk, promising a solution to a problem: money for our shrinking nest eggs, companionship for our lonely hearts, a chance to show we matter. Others feign a problem that needs quick solving, perhaps with some warning about a potential danger.

Speak Out: Tell us about scams and fraud you've come across

"The scammer's goal is to get you to not think rationally, to operate on an emotional level," says Jean Mathisen, director of AARP's Fraud Fighter hotline (800-646-2283), which provides counseling, education and victim advocacy. "To put you 'under the ether,' as it's called." Some of the come-ons:

Congratulations, sir. We're sending you a free medical alert device. Now you can relax about your safety.

I know you love me, Grandma. Please send the money so I can get out of jail. I want to come home.

Maybe others don't care about you, but I do. I'll listen.

The natural aging process can cause changes in brain function that benefit scammers. Often subtle, even unnoticeable, these shifts often occur around the mid-60s.

At this age, the processing of information slows. This can make you more likely to fall for scams urging you to act immediately.

Age-related brain changes can hamper the ability to recognize facial expressions that signal deceit.

Lies repeated again and again are more likely to be perceived as true as you age, experts say. Con artists use tactics that rely on an erosion of memory or the ability to focus attention. "You forgot to pay me!" or "We agreed on this price" are phrases that are often used.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

Why People Might Fall for It

Studies show that people are most susceptible to fraud within three years of some traumatic event such as loss of a loved one, illness or a move to a new living place, worrisome challenges that older people frequently face.

"Negative events occupy your attention and chew up your mental capacity," explains Anthony Pratkanis, coauthor (with AARP Washington state director Doug Shadel) of Weapons of Fraud. "Maybe your nest egg is shrinking, maybe you're facing a change of housing. The scammer learns this, and offers that last chance to grasp at the golden ring."

Jerry and Deanna Falls endured a perfect storm of negative events. In the space of eight months, a son, a granddaughter and Deanna's mother died. Another son was left unable to work by an accident.

After falling behind on their mortgage, the Fallses sought a loan modification with mortgage-holder Chase, but were denied. Scammers stepped in. "We were in a terrible state, and they knew it," recalls Deanna, 74, a former real estate agent. They sent the Fallses a loan modification "approval" letter — a bogus replica purportedly from HUD that detailed their Chase loan number, rate and balance. That information was probably obtained from public records, the Fallses were later told. They sent a $3,500 cashier's check for supposed processing fees. That money was lost forever. But luckily, the couple held on to their home. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) heard about the case and interceded. Chase modified their mortgage.

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