Sorry, Millennials: studies reveal seniors are NOT the most susceptible to scams

It’s been my personal mission to rally people of all age groups around seniors’ issues for quite some time.  Lack of general awareness is what allows abuses against specific groups to go unchecked.  And let’s be real: everyone is going to be senior one day.  The best thing we can do for ourselves in time is create a safer environment for retirees right now.

…Unfortunately, I’m also really into the epic roast war between Millennials and Boomers on the internet.  In my family, the young people were always told, “20-year-olds don’t know anything—don’t listen to 20-year-olds.”  Just before turning 30, it morphed into, “never trust anyone in their 30s.”  One day—when I’m allowed to have an opinion—they’re REALLY going to get an earful.

So, I’m conflicted.   As much as I love the differences from one generation to the next (and all of the opportunities it gives us to poke a little fun at each other from time to time), I’m not a fan of the very real divide those differences can cause.  Especially when that divide isn’t as wide or as solid as we think.

Case in point: telephone and online scams.

Scams are something we tend to associate predominantly with seniors.  Without seeing a single report or any kind of quote from an expert on the topic, almost everyone would tell you seniors are the most susceptible to scammers.

It’s true most scammers eye seniors specifically when they come up with their strategies.  Some of the most profitable scams operating right now in the United States are exclusively targeting retirees, Medicare beneficiaries, and Social Security beneficiaries.  Seniors are more likely to have savings accounts, assets, and are more likely to be living in social isolation, which is incredibly good for a scammer looking to siphon money from a victim in the long term.

But it’s also true scammers go where the opportunity is.  And anyone willing to put their information out there is an opportunity, senior or no.

Remember when I said the best thing we can do for ourselves is to pay more attention to things that affect seniors?  Well, the opposite is true, too: the WORST thing we can do is label something a “seniors’ problem” and walk away from it entirely.  Especially when the problems we wave away because they don’t affect us are actually OUR problems.

The world may call phone and web scams “seniors’ problems,” but that’s NOT what the data is now showing.  In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s analysis of who is making scam reports, seniors may have one more point to make in the “wisdom before beauty” debate.

The FTC says in recent years, 40% of those making scam reports fell between the ages of 20 and 29, compared to 18% being 70 or older.  According to their data, scam reports dramatically decrease beginning at age 50.

This data was determined based on reports made in 2017 and 2018.  But more recent data shows this trend has maintained even into 2021.

According to the Better Business Bureau, adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are at the highest risk of becoming a victim.  Not only are young people continuing to be most susceptible to scams, but the trend has crossed over from the Millennial generation officially into Generation Z, the oldest of whom are currently between 18 and 24 years old.

Now, before you start thinking about all of the zingers you’re going to throw at your grandchildren over Zoom tonight, seniors are STILL very at risk.  Although more young people fall for online scams than any other age group, seniors still tend to lose the most money.  A college-aged adult may fall for every online scam he sees, but there’s no getting blood from a stone.  I don’t know what your college bank account looked like, but if someone took $100 dollars from me when I was in school, I would have been tapped out for a while.  This age group is NOT known for having spare cash.

Seniors, on the other hand, DO have money in the bank.  They also have home equity, vehicles, working children, and other resources they can potentially use to get money if pressed by a scammer.  Seniors may fall for scams less, but because they have more readily available funds, their losses can potentially be life-altering.

It’s also worth considering the data might not be telling the story we think it’s telling.

The hard data we have says seniors aren’t REPORTING losing to scams at the same level Millennials and Gen Z are.  This isn’t the same thing as saying seniors aren’t losing money to scams at the same rate young people are.

Baby Boomers and older generations didn’t grow up in a society where oversharing was completely normal.  The oldest Millennials, however, were young adults and teenagers when Myspace and Facebook were rolled out.  They’ve been publicly sharing online for half their lives at this point.

And Gen Z?  Whew.  They never had a chance.  They’ve never known a world without constant oversharing.

In fact, this is a major reason why younger generations fall for online scams right and left.  Younger people are far more comfortable communicating with strangers online, doing business online, and putting personal details online.  It’s all they’ve ever known.

Older generations, on the other hand, are slow to take up the newest social media trends.  This is possibly because seniors aren’t primed to jump from one platform to the next putting their entire lives on display.  If I had to pick the single most repeated, most critical, most serious lesson I was taught growing up by the older people in my life, it was “DON’T TELL EVERYONE ALL OF YOUR BUSINESS.”  They all recoil at the thought of posting a photo of themselves online.

But where the comfort with sharing can be a positive thing is reporting crime.  People who are very private and protective of their lives may find it very difficult to reach out and report losing money to a scammer. They may also feel a great deal more shame about being scammed in the first place.

It’s estimated only 1 in 25 seniors report financial fraud.  This fact alone would make seniors the most ideal target in the world—the likelihood you’d ever get reported or caught scamming a retiree is very low.  Not only are seniors less comfortable in general with our online transaction/online sharing/online communication world, but they’re so concerned being victimized will be taken as evidence of mental decline or incompetence that they often hide what was done to them.

So the takeaway from this data isn’t really who falls for online scams less.  That doesn’t really matter all that much—though, by all means, don’t be afraid to whip this fact out at the dinner table if some sassy stripling decides to “OK Boomer” you.

The story here is really about why it’s important for young people and seniors to communicate and invest in each other.  While Millennials and Gen Z consider being victimized by online scammers their grandparents’ issue, they themselves are getting destroyed by online thieves.  My generation still has a LOT to learn from those we often choose to ignore—especially on the issue of privacy.

But our parents and grandparents could learn a lot from us, too.  The data shows that when we get hurt by online fraudsters, we make sure someone knows.  Sure, we might feel the same shame and embarrassment about falling for a stupid online scam, but we also know reporting a scammer may save someone else in the future. 

There is NO REASON AT ALL to feel shame when someone takes advantage of you.  All the shame belongs to the person doing the hurting—never the victim.  If it has happened or does happen to you, don’t be hard on yourself.  These people are very good at what they do, they are very good at picking their targets, and they use every detail about you and what’s going on in the world around you to exploit you.  There’s no such thing as someone who is immune to scams. 

And if it ever does happen to you?  Reporting is essential to protecting others and getting justice for yourself.  Nobody is interested in judging you for reporting a crime—they’re interested in stopping these crimes from happening.

So, as a self-appointed representative of the oft-scammed Millennial generation, I’ll officially concede that we’ve been pretty smug and pretty incorrect about how savvy and safe we are when it comes to scams. 

…Go ahead and let that one sink in because it might a good long while before one of us admits we were wrong to you again.

But I will also say this: if it is indeed the case a lack of senior reporting is contributing to this huge gap in reporting between 20-somethings and retirees, know that we want to help you.  Getting scammed so often ourselves, we know how rampant it is, we know how terrible it feels, and we know it’s not your fault. 

But we won’t know someone is hurting you if you don’t tell us.  So, if you don’t feel comfortable reporting being scammed or if you don’t know how or where to report it, be open with your family and TELL SOMEONE.  Keeping these things a secret is what allows these scams to continue.  And it takes a horrible emotional toll on those who feel they must hide it.

We may like to butt heads on a lot of things, but at the end of the day, we can all agree everyone has a right to be safe, secure, and happy, right? 

And since WE’RE willing to concede we aren’t really as great at the internet as we thought we were, maybe we can make a small generational request..?

“Participation trophies?” Really?

You know perfectly well you gave us those trophies.  Leave us alone.

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