Fraud against the elderly

Hello world –

I’ve spent the last several months graduating from law school and moving instead of posting to Whoselaw. I hope to start posting regularly here again soon.

My first “welcome back” post is going to be this link to this lovely piece on fraud against the elderly, recently published in the Elder Law Journal (link to SSRN) and featured in the Situationist Blog. The article examines many of the cognitive biases that financial scammers exploit when they target elderly individuals and argues that education-based interventions against financial crime will be ineffective because they fail to address these biases.

This has become a personal issue for me because scammers (and also telemarketers) have been recently targeting my grandmother. Like the individuals discussed in Barnard’s piece, she is financially savvy and fiercely independent – not the type to want to listen to an educational program (“what, do you think I’m an idiot?”). Still, she talks at length to telemarketers and has been repeatedly baffled by lottery fraud letters she receives, telling her that she has won some well-known sweepstakes but must first pay “taxes” before receiving her prize.

Aside from increased enforcement, I wonder if education-based interventions would work better if senior citizens like my grandmother could envision themselves as not potential victims but rather potential law enforcers. Few people targeted by scams are the only ones at risk from those scams, so alerting the police even when you receive a solicitation for a fraudulent scheme is likely to protect other people (as long as the police actually act on this information, which I’ll discuss in a bit). My grandmother (like a lot of people) does not like to see herself as someone who needs to be protected, but will respond well if she thinks she’s protecting others less competent than herself. Framing educational programs, at least in part, as about catching criminals and protecting others is likely to attract a lot more of the independent, financially savvy types who, ironically, are the most likely to themselves be the victims of fraud. And, of course, vigilant and engaged citizens make law enforcement easier.

That said, such a program would have to be backed up with serious resources toward enforcing laws against fraud.  An enforcement system that relied primarily on fines, or that only prosecuted cases of completed, big-dollar fraud, would give senior citizens an inadequate incentive to report attempted fraud. Would-be crimefighters need to believe that the police will act on their tips, and that as a result, a criminal will be “taken off the street” or otherwise prevented from victimizing others in the future.

The lottery scammers who targeted my grandmother are a good example of this: these people were conducting their scheme through the mails (from Canada, it turns out), and had indicated a return address to which “taxes” should be sent. It would not be too difficult for police to simply stake out the post office box indicated in the letter and arrest anyone who came to check it. This type of technique is routinely used for drug traffickers; why not use it on people who try to steal from our parents and grandparents? Is it simply because we think that with all the educational programs there are out there, anyone who falls for this type of thing is “stupid” enough to deserve it?


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Filed under Crime and Punishment, Elder Law, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations

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