Older Adults Fall for Government Impersonation Scam

Researchers fear more seniors are at risk than anticipated after study respondents reveal personal data to their fictitious organization.

By Rethinking65

A recent study from the Finra Investor Education Foundation and Rush University Medical Center shows that older adults, including those without cognitive impairment, are vulnerable to government impersonation scams. These types of scams were among the top five reported to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging from 2015 to 2020, noted the researchers.

For their study, they developed a fictitious entity, the U.S. Retirement Protection Task Force (USRPTF), that purported to handle crucial government files related to Social Security and Medicare benefits. A “live agent” then called 644 older adults (average age 85.6) and told them the USRPTF was reaching out to confirm unusual activity in their file. Participants also received materials about the fake entity through emails and mailers that listed a call-in number.

Three cohorts identified

Sixteen percent of the participants engaged with the scammer without skepticism; three-quarters of this subset provided personal information such as their names, addresses or last four digits of their Social Security number. Another 15% of the study’s participants engaged with skepticism, such as refusing to cooperate, questioning the caller’s intentions, asking for clarification about the task force, and declining call recording or information sharing.

The majority of individuals contacted for the study (68%) did not answer the phone or call in after receiving an email or mailer.

The study also assessed functional, behavioral, and psychosocial measures among its participants, including cognitive assessment, clinical evaluation for Alzheimer’s dementia, financial literacy, scam awareness, depressive symptoms, loneliness, social networks, trust and psychological well-being.

Those who engaged with the agent but with skepticism had the highest cognition and financial literacy levels. On average, participants correctly answered 75% of the financial literacy questions and four of the six financial decision-making questions presented to them.

According to the researchers’ knowledge, this is the first study to objectively examine financial fraud and scams in older adults through a behavioral experiment.

Worse than expected

The researchers noted that their findings, if extrapolated to a population level, suggest that an “astounding” number of older adults are at risk of victimization. Not only does this far exceed many estimates in previous research, they said, it’s also likely on the low side because they used a fictitious government agency. Fraudsters create more compelling scams by impersonating real government agencies and organizations, they said.

“Continued research and education on the topic is a must as we continue to work toward protecting vulnerable populations and getting a better grasp of the scope of the problem, which remains as prevalent and pervasive as ever,” Gerri Walsh, president of the Finra Foundation, said in a press release.

The study’s participants had a mean of 16 years of education and median annual household income of $50,000 and $ 75,000. They also participate in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing cohort study of chronic conditions of aging.


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