Hard Wired for Scams
Is there a biological reason some of us fall for rip-offs?
Linda Liebe tells everyone she meets, she's 29.
"I work crossword puzzles, cryptoquips, word jumbles,” Linda said.
Linda doesn't miss much. That's why she can't understand how she fell for a scam. In June, Linda answered the phone when she knew better.
“To this day, I don't know why I picked up that phone,” Linda said.
On the other line, a man told her the government was re-issuing Medicare cards.
"Then he started in on me again that he had to have my bank information, in order to send me a new Medicare card,” Linda said.
After 25 minutes, Linda finally gave up her banking information. When she hung up, she knew she had messed up.
"Something just kicked in - wait a minute, something is wrong here,” Linda said.
Linda wanted to share her story with KWCH. She had worked here for more than three decades. As the executive secretary, she made appointments, took down minutes, she even handled budgets.
"They used to call me mother superior ... because if anybody wanted anything done, they came to me and I got it done,” Linda said.
So, with her background, of all people, Linda should know how to sniff out a scam.
"I'm not embarrassed about it, I just feel angry,” Linda said.
An explanation for Linda's lapse in judgment might be found at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
"So, it's not as if an older person who has fallen for a scam is stupid or it's their fault in any way. It's they've lost the ability to doubt,” researcher Erik Asp said.
Asp is trying to prove that theory. He says as you age, so does this front part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex.
"The prefrontal cortex is a very large structure, which encompasses 13 percent of the brain, so it's about this big,” Asp said.
Asp and his fellow researchers believe that area of your brain is responsible for doubting. When it starts to age, they've found you lose the ability to doubt. Or, as Asp says it will lead you to be more credulous.
"We've actually known for a while that there's a disproportionate decline in older adults in the prefrontal cortex. Both in the structural integrity and functionality,” Asp said.
That decline starts between the ages of 60 to 65. But a stroke or having a tumor removed can also cause damage to this part of the brain. In his study, Asp used patients with brain damage to that area. His team had the patients watch ads deemed deceptive by the FTC.
“We basically just asked them how much they believe the misleading aspect of the ad. And we also asked them if this product became available in your local store, how much intention to purpose would you have,” Asp said.
They found having prefrontal cortex damage nearly doubled the likelihood of someone believing those deceptive ads.
"And, what's interesting too, it seems to be somewhat independent of intelligence,” Asp said.
Asp says you could lack the ability to doubt, but still be sharp as a tack. Like Linda. She knew she had to cancel her checking account as soon as possible.
"I had had that checking account for forty years,” Linda said.
The scammers didn't get any money. But Linda learned a lesson about herself ... while she's refusing to age, her brain is growing older.
"My favorite saying as always, is mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter,” Linda said.
There is something you can do. The researcher says some "brain training programs" have been shown to help slow the brain aging process.
Also keep in mind, this research is not complete. The researcher says this idea has not been rigorously tested. And more research needs to be done. But he believes there is great initial evidence that proves why older people may be likely to fall for scams.