How Brain Defects Increase Online Gullibility

In these enlightened times, you may think that the average Internet user is too sophisticated to be suckered in by online scams. But cyber fraud and theft are growing rapidly despite constant efforts to educate users to the danger. A new study suggests why some people, especially the elderly, seem so susceptible.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft and fraud complaints jumped up to 1.8 million in 2011, a rise of 24.2% from 2010, and 4575 since 2001. The annual report from the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network doesn't break down the (many) fraud categories by what's online or not, but its a sure bet that many of these scams are conducted via the Internet.

Why Warnings Aren't Enough

It is frustrating to see so many of these scams succeed, in some cases even after huge amounts of media coverage explicitly warning about the problem and how the fraud.

New research from the University of Iowa may suggest an explanation on why this keeps happening.

One of the models for how we believe something is true or not is the False Tagging Theory (FTT), which postulates that all ideas are initially believed to be true. Doubt rears its head only when a specific area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, "tags" an event or an idea as false. The University of Iowa team's research found that when a very specific part of that area of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is damaged, the doubting system is not as efficient.

"Damage to this area of the brain causes a 'doubt deficit' that results in greater credulity," the team wrote in the journal Frontiers in Decision Neuroscience. One of the ways the vmPFC can become damaged? Natural aging.

This would help to explain why so many fraud cases seem involved older citizens. A 2009 MetLife Mature Market Institute report, Broken Trust: Elders, Family and Finances, revealed that up to one million older Americans are victims of financial fraud each year, and that number is growing.

You would think that, having been around the block a time or two, the elderly might be less prone to fraud victimization. But if a victim's cognitive mechanism that would normally see through a flam-flam job is not working properly, then it makes sense that they would be easier to fool.

How To Avoid Online Fraud

If you're still worried about Internet scams, here's some simple advice:

  • Have patience. This is the one you should use for every financial proposal. Very rarely does someone really want to give you money, and if they're in a hurry, something is wrong. If someone pays you too much money and says they trust you to wire the overage back, take your time, no matter what they say. Chances are, whatever check they sent you is about to bounce sky-high. If it clears, then send them the change.
  • Follow up with phone calls. If someone claiming to be a relative or friend emails from a distant place saying they're in trouble and need money wired fast, practice patience again. Take five minutes and call that person. Very likely, they haven't even left home.
  • Your bank already knows everything. If someone calls from your bank or credit card company asking for personal information, remind them you already told them all of that in triplicate when you first signed up for the bank or credit account. Politely hang up, and then call the bank on your own to make sure there isn't really a problem.

Tablets and mobile devices are making it easier for all segments of the population to get online, so the number of potential victims continues to grow. And as long as there are potential marks out there, fraud will never fade away.