Researcher Suggests New Way To Help Elderly Avoid Being Swindled

August 20, 1997

CHICAGO -- Given the right set of circumstances just about anybody could be swindled, but swindlers, con artists and other practitioners of bunco have long known that the elderly are a particularly vulnerable target. But not all elderly people fall prey to swindlers and, according to psychologist Monroe Friedman, Ph.D., of Eastern Michigan University, the very strategies that real people have used to detect and escape from con artists -- particularly "the human ability to identify patterns of suspicious behavior" -- are seldom mentioned in widely distributed materials designed to help consumers avoid getting conned. Dr. Friedman reported his findings at the 105th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Chicago.

Dr. Friedman conducted two surveys -- one in which he asked 304 older people recruited for this study to relate stories of their successes at detecting and avoiding swindles. In the other survey, he gathered materials disseminated by federal, state and local government agencies and private organizations on dealing with confidence swindles. When he compared the older people's success stories with the authorities' advice, he found considerable differences between the two.

For example, many of the swindle varieties dealt with by the respondents in the first survey were not discussed in the educational materials gathered in the second survey (although the most common types were). But in those instances where the swindles reported by the elderly were also covered by the educational materials, "the specific danger signals and escape mechanisms identified by the respondents were often not mentioned in the materials."

For example, about 14 percent of the survey respondents said their suspicions of being conned were stimulated by "multiple aspects of the situation," but only one percent of the educational materials mentioned that. "Indeed," Dr. Friedman says, "the organizational material tended to be structured logically, like a computer flow chart (e.g., if the caller does X, be suspicious). The respondents' reports, on the other hand, tended to be structured psychologically, with due appreciation of the cumulative impact of multiple indicators (e.g., 'it wasn't any one thing; the whole situation just didn't seem right' or 'the more he talked, the more suspicious I became')."

Another difference between what people do in real life to avoid being swindled and what agencies and organizations advise them to do is in forcefulness of response. While the educational materials frequently advised people who suspected they were being conned to "refuse the offer for the moment" the survey respondents were much more likely to have refused the offer "categorically" or to have refused to communicate at all with the suspected swindler. That difference, Dr. Friedman says, may stem from legal liability concerns on the part of advice-giving organizations.

Nonetheless, Dr. Friedman says, the point remains that elderly people's successful real-life experiences with swindlers and con artists are not often being tapped for inclusion in the "official" advice government agencies and others offer for avoiding cons and swindles, advice which is often derived from cases of swindlers who have failed. "Individual success stories," Dr. Friedman says, "provide positive behavioral models for others to emulate, models which government agencies and private organizations can incorporate into their materials to educate and inform target individuals and groups."

Presentation: "Combating Elderly Consumer Fraud: A Paradigm Shift to Positive Behavioral Models" by Monroe Friedman, Ph.D., Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI, Session 4022, 8:00 AM, Monday, August 18, 1997, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Haymarket Room.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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American Psychological Association

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