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Fool Me Once: Why Scams Leave People Feeling Foolish

Scams are a silent, costly threat but awareness gives you an advantage.

Key points

  • Scams are a silent and costly threat to both the old and the young, and can be psychologically damaging.
  • Many people won’t reveal how they have been taken advantage of, due to shame and vulnerability.
  • Awareness of the frequent and dynamic nature of scams gives people an advantage.

Scams are everywhere, and they target people both young and old. Simply answering the phone or opening an email can lead to danger. The results can be devastating, from losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to having retirement savings accounts wiped out, as well as identity theft. The psychological effects are damaging, leading to a sense of helplessness and isolation. Preying on unsuspecting and often educated people of all ages, financial scams target our sense of trust and need for connection.

Scams may first present themselves in terms of seemingly honest deals from companies that sound reputable. But while a company may sound legitimate, the deals are often too good to be true, and when they gain our confidence, we become prone to accepting something that is not what it seems. In fact, some companies provide sales employees with specific training in how to gain the confidence of older adults in ways that target social and emotional connection that then leads to a sense of trust. In one case, a company was found guilty of using deception and misrepresentation to sell more than $200 million in living trusts and annuities using such training tactics. [1]

Scams that involve rushing people to make uninformed decisions, pressuring them to accept a limited-time offer, or in more extreme cases, threatening them with acts of violence and fear of jail time if they do not comply with, for example, a scammer's request to pay an overdue fine for missing jury duty. A most distressing scam involves targeting family connections, as when a caller claims to have kidnapped a granddaughter/son who is traveling (with recorded screaming in the background), and the caller then provides accurate information over the phone by having access to the grandchild’s Instagram or Facebook posts, leading the grandparent to quickly wire money to the suspected kidnapper to save a grandchild they believe is in grave danger.

Older adults may be prime targets for scams, often because they have significant assets, and because their loneliness can lead them to engage with opportunists. However, recent research has shown that younger adults are actually just as likely to be victims of scams [2]. A Federal Trade Commission report shows that people of all ages are susceptible, and that age, experience, and level of formal education may play a role that is often counterintuitive. Some research shows that those with higher levels of education are even more likely to be duped [3], perhaps because they seek to trust others or look for reasons why a scam may be true. For example, a typical victim may be a 55-year-old, well-educated man who is an experienced investor. The middle-aged brain may react to potential gains without checking in to make sure something isn’t better than it seems (or too good to be true, in hindsight), suggesting that we are often hardwired into being duped [4]. Scams can affect not only the victim but the broader family, and often people are repeatedly targeted based on income, assets, and isolation.

What is concerning is that people often feel foolish or experience frustration after being scammed. As a result, victims may not want to share what has happened to them, due to feelings of shame, or the worry that their adult children may feel the need to take power of attorney over their finances, leading to a loss of independence. Thus, many will bottle up what has happened, leading to isolation and a sense of helplessness. But as with any trauma, we need to talk about it with people who are not judgmental, as scams affect people of all walks of life.

When being a victim of fraud leads to isolation, victims internalize the traumatic experience and thus experience further feelings of loneliness, which can even lead to future victimization. Being fooled once can also lead to future scams because targets’ contact information may appear on lists that are shared or sold to other con artists.

Susceptibility to scams may be based on a number of factors, but answering the phone, having difficulty getting off of the phone, and/or listening to people who want your time and money, can all lead to victimization [5]. Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus recently wrote about how people experience pronounced helplessness after being victimized, but often won’t discuss it with others. Some victims were so overcome by a con artist's voice and tactics that they felt they had been put in a hypnotic-like state, following orders without a sense of logic.

We need a safe way to share these often humiliating experiences; others can become less prone to becoming a victim in the future if they learn about similar threats. A support group for victims of scams can help inform others of ever-changing approaches. For people who haven’t been scammed (yet), hearing about these experiences can help them become more aware of what's lurking out there, often behind a voice that sounds trustworthy.

There is no shame in trusting other people, but misplaced trust, or trying to only see the good in others, may occur in older age, especially so in early stages of dementia. But no one is immune to the compelling nature of scams; we all have our weaknesses (such as interest in a good deal). Scams often rely on some core psychological principles: Being curious and engaging in conversation with someone, for example, is often human nature. Connecting with people we can trust, and maintaining a strong sense of community, may be the best protection.


1. DeLiema, M., Yon, Y., & Wilber, K. H. (2016). Tricks of the trade: Motivating sales agents to con older adults. The Gerontologist, 56, 335-344.

2. Ross, M., Grossmann, I., & Schryer, E. (2014). Contrary to psychological and popular opinion, there is no compelling evidence that older adults are disproportionately victimized by consumer fraud. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, 427-442.


4. Castle, E., Eisenberger, N. I., Seeman, T. E., Moons, W. G., Boggero, I. A., Grinblatt, M. S., & Taylor, S. E. (2012). Neural and behavioral bases of age differences in perceptions of trust. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 20848-20852.

5. James, B. D., Boyle, P. A., & Bennett, D. A. (2014). Correlates of susceptibility to scams in older adults without dementia. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 26, 107-122.

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