Research Reveals When and How People Become Susceptible to Fraud

man looking distressed at a credit card and laptop computer

An estimated nine in ten Americans (229 million people) encountered a fraud attempt and one in seven (33 million people) lost money to a scam in 2020, according to a new AARP study. The findings come as fraud reports have skyrocketed during the pandemic, and as technology and business sophistication has allowed scammers to cast even wider nets attempting to snare unsuspecting victims.

scam infographicBut while consumer protection advocates and authorities struggle to keep up with a proliferation of new scams and schemes, AARP’s report, “A Moment’s Notice,” revealed the specific environmental and emotional factors that are present in most all successful attempts to defraud consumers. The findings from the July 2021 national study present a new opportunity to get a step ahead of the scammers, by helping consumers understand when and how any of us can lose money to fraud given the right scammer and the right moment in time.

“Consumer advocates have long struggled to identify exactly who is most likely to become a fraud victim,” said AARP Washington State Director Doug Shadel. “The truth of the matter is that scam artists are master manipulators of emotion, and anyone can experience a scam, regardless of age, income, or education. Our research has shown that it isn’t necessarily who you are that matters, but how you are when the pitch is made,” he said.

scam infographicAARP’s study identified three risk factors that can create vulnerable moments in which targets of scammers may be more susceptible to criminal tactics—emotions, environment, and exposure:

  • Emotions: Victims of fraud reported significantly more and stronger emotions than non-victims at the time of fraud encounters. And more victims than non-victims reported feeling out of control during encounters with scams, which is precisely the goal of the criminal.
  • Environment: Coping with changes like loss of a job or death of a family member may impact a person’s response to fraud. Stressful life events can lower defenses, which may make it harder to spot a scam.
  • Exposure: Significantly more victims than non-victims experienced multiple exposures to fraud. Many victims also reported being more open to solicitations from strangers and making remote purchases at a pace that significantly exceeded that of non-victims, which may have caused additional fraud exposure.

scam infographic“The scammer’s goal is to target those vulnerable moments and to get their target into a heightened emotional state so that they are easier to persuade and control,” said Shadel. “When our emotions take over, we become more susceptible to fraud—it’s not weakness, it’s human. But if we pay special attention and take extra precautions during those moments in our lives, we can gain the upper hand in recognizing and avoiding scammers’ attempts,” he said.

According to AARP, the report findings support four key areas that may limit the likelihood of a scam’s success:

  1. Fraud prevention education should include the role of emotion and stress:Bolster current fraud education efforts that focus on cognitive learnings, by including content that addresses how heightened emotions can weaken our defenses to scams.
  2. Encourage the use of protective factors that can limit exposure to scams:Encourage the wider use of protective services like call blocking, credit freezes, protective software, online monitoring of accounts, and password management.
  3. Strengthen social support networks: One of the most important findings of AARP’s study was the role that social isolation and a relative lack of social and family support may play in fraud victimization. The study found victims reported more experiences of loneliness and less social and family support than non-victims.
  4. Underline the fact that fraud can happen to anyone: AARP’s research shows that no one demo­graphic characteristic is the primary source of fraud susceptibility. “An indi­vidual can have a PhD in psychology, be a millionaire or a senior partner in a law firm and still lose money to scams,” said Shadel. “If consumers think that ‘older people, uneducated people, low-income people, or some select ‘others’ are the only ones suscep­tible to fraud, that may give them a false sense of security, which paradoxically can lead to greater susceptibility.”

For more information on the latest scams targeting your community, visit

For infographics about scams and fraud like the ones featured above and several more tailored for African American and Latinx/Hispanic communities, visit “Stressful Life Events May Increase Our Susceptibility to Fraud” (AARP).

Jason ErskineContributor Jason Erskine directs communications at AARP Washington. Learn more about AARP Washington at

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of AgeWise King County.