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Loneliness, social isolation, and financial exploitation can go hand in hand for older adults

More than a third of adults over the age of 45 are lonely, and a quarter of those over 65 may be socially isolated. That comes with financial risks, too.

Loneliness, social isolation, and financial exploitation can go hand in hand for older adults
[Source Images: An Kirillova/Getty]

As Americans approach their golden years, many expect to spend time on the golf course, going on an RV tour of National Parks, or spending time with their grandchildren. Unfortunately, falling for financial scams is also becoming an increasingly common fixture of old age, too, especially for seniors who may be more socially isolated than others.

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Americans over the age of 50 who are either lonely or dissatisfied with their personal relationships are more likely to fall for financial scams, according to the findings of a study from researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, which was published in the journal Aging & Mental Health. The study involved collecting data from 26 age 50+ adults over a six-month period, and found that “individuals with higher interpersonal dysfunction relative to others in the study reported greater FEV [financial exploitation vulnerability] throughout the 6-month observation period. Increased loneliness and social dissatisfaction, relative to one’s average level, predicts subsequent increases in FEV, and may be an imminent risk factor for exploitation.”

The study is also noteworthy because it is the first time that researchers have been able to pinpoint loneliness and or social isolation as a factor that can potentially make an older adult more vulnerable to financial scams, according to one of the study’s authors, Duke Han of the Kick School.

Loneliness and social isolation are fairly widespread issues among America’s older population, too. More than a third of adults over the age of 45 are lonely, and a quarter of those over 65 may be considered socially isolated, per a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Aside from numerous potential physical problems caused by isolation—including increased dementia risk, higher depression rates, and potentially a higher chance of having a stroke or heart attack, the NASEM report outlines—we now know that it can lead to financial ills as well.

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Scammers target the elderly

Law enforcement agencies around the country have been sounding the alarm about elder fraud and other scams targeting senior citizens. “The number of elderly victims has risen at an alarming rate, while the loss amounts are even more staggering. In 2021, over 92,000 victims over the age of 60 reported losses of $1.7 billion,” reads the FBI’s 2021 Elder Fraud Report “This represents a 74 percent increase in losses over losses reported in 2020.”

As for the form that these scams may take? There are several—and some that may be particularly effective when targeting lonely or isolated seniors. For example, romance scams, which involve a scammer posing as a potential love interest, led to losses of more than $432 million in 2021 for people over 60, according to the FBI’s report. The “grandparent scam” is another popular ploy, wherein a scammer pretends to be a grandchild in need of financial assistance. It’s not hard to imagine that a lonely grandparent who doesn’t hear from their grandchildren as often as they’d like would be quick to jump at the opportunity to try and lend a helping hand, only to find out later that they’d been duped.

Researchers have suspected that there’s a relationship between isolation and vulnerability to scams—there have been other studies probing the relationship as well. But given this most recent study’s small sample, there’s exploring to do. For the under-50 crowd, however, this could serve as a reminder to spend more time with your elderly friends and family, who may be lonelier than you think.

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