Incidents like this one happen every winter.
Southold Town Police last month arrested a man and accused him of conning several Suffolk residents in a chimney-repair scam. Police said he collected thousands of dollars from homeowners but skipped out before doing any repairs, which may not have been needed, anyway. In every case, the victim was elderly.
If you are in your mid-50s or older, you may want to pause before saying you're too savvy for this to happen to you. Whether it's a garden-variety chimney scam or a million-dollar financial swindle, older adults are prime targets. There may be a physiological reason why they fall for a scam they would have easily spotted when they were younger. "The region of the brain responsible for warning about dangers is very active in younger adults when they look at untrustworthy faces," says Shelley Taylor, a professor of psychology at UCLA. "But it's almost silent in older adults. It's just not reacting."
In a new study appearing in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Taylor and her colleagues found that older adults appear to have difficulty recognizing cues that a person may be untrustworthy. "They're not picking up on certain kinds of eye contact, on backward leans, on smirks," she says. "They misinterpret smirks as sincere smiles."
Even the enormous fraud committed by Bernard Madoff was constructed on a form of trust. Madoff's victims, mostly middle-age and older, trusted that the outsize returns on their investments were legitimate. While most victims never met Madoff, those who did know him typically described him as warm, charming and, yes, trustworthy.
The takeaway from Taylor's research is that older people should be aware that their early warning system may not be functioning as well as it once did. In addition to outright frauds, they may be prone to falling for legal but unsuitable investments offered at some "free-lunch" investment seminars. "The presenters will zero in on a couple of people sitting close to the front who they think are ripe for this," Taylor says. "They may not be scams in the usual sense, but they may be either very high-fee investments or they may be inappropriate investments."
As for the bogus chimney, roof and driveway repairers who knock on your door or call you on the phone, just say no. This year, especially, you may have to keep your guard up to scams. "I'm sure in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there will be a lot more," Taylor says.