top of page

SAFE is very excited to partner with Good Judgment Open, a forecasting service run by Good Judgment Inc., the pathbreaking superforecasting firm. Through the wisdom of crowds, Good Judgment predicts future events, equipping corporate and government decision-makers with the benefit of foresight. And now we are marshaling Good Judgment’s skills in the fight against elder fraud!

The collaboration between SAFE and Good Judgment will focus on predicting something very specific: whether the dollar losses from three particular kinds of elder fraud scams – romance scams, business imposter scams, and investment scams – will decrease, stay the same, increase by a little, or increase by a lot. We chose these three types of scams because they are the elder fraud scams the FTC identified as having generated the greatest monetary losses in 2021. They are the FTC’s “Big Three” as it were. See the FTC’s most recent report here. And screenshot of the relevant data is right here:

Why try to predict this? In short, because it will give us a sense of the direction of elder fraud through 2022 and beyond. It will help us to anticipate answers to questions like: Will these three types of scams continue to wreak financial havoc through 2022 and beyond? Or will they become less common in a post-pandemic (and perhaps “less online”) environment? Will one of these three emerge as a clear “Public Enemy Number One” to victims of elder fraud? Through this collaboration, we hope to find out.

To generate the prediction, Good Judgment has posed a series of carefully phrased and very precise questions to its massive open online forum, using the FTC’s most recent elder fraud report as a baseline. You can take a look at Good Judgment’s precise questions, and the current results, at this link. You can even sign up to be a predictor yourself, and try your hand at forecasting.

What is the ultimate purpose of this project? Simple. Prediction is a tool that can help policymakers, enforcement agencies, and nonprofits anticipate what the future brings – how the elder fraud threat will evolve in the future. If we can have a clearer picture of how elder fraud scams might evolve in the near future – throughout 2022 and beyond – then we can all adjust accordingly. For instance, policymakers can shift the allocation of money and other resources to specifically address the scams they think will do the most damage. Enforcement agencies like the FTC, the FBI, and local police can prompt their busy personnel to be on the lookout for specific fraud types – better ensuring that hints of fraudulent activity do not go undetected. Nonprofit networks can inform caregivers and families who work with older adults each day, enabling them to be more alert to the most likely causes of trouble.

Here is another way of thinking about Good Judgment’s prediction capability and how it can be useful: prediction is a complement to other, preexisting, and more familiar tools. The annual reports produced by the FTC, FBI, and others are incredibly helpful. But they also have limits. One such limit is that annual reports, by their nature, are backward-looking. By the time they are released, their data is already stale – historical, rather than timely. At SAFE, we are trying to build upon the detailed information in these reports to provide more timely and forward-looking – and thus more actionable – intelligence about what the scammers might do next.

This should help everyone fighting against elder fraud to do it even better.

Good Judgment’s project will last through February of 2023. At that point, we will release our results and share them here. Stay tuned!

According to the FTC, in 2021 alone, older Americans reported more than $6.1 billion in financial loss due to fraud. While staggering, this sum may be just a tiny fraction of the true monetary costs. Among other independent reports, the National Council on Aging cites a TrueLink Report that found the actual losses could be as high as $36 billion per year.

But financial loss is only part of the story. Fraud victims suffer immeasurable human costs as well. And these costs often manifest in ways that are seldom discussed in law enforcement circles and underappreciated by the general public. According to Stacey Wood, a Molly Mason Jones Professor of Psychology at Scripps College, most fraud is actually committed by someone the victim knows – often a family member – creating emotional tension and deepening the pain of the loss. This in turn can lead to feelings of anxiety, a loss of trust in others, and depression. Depending on the nature of the fraudulent scheme, there can be additional impacts. Take for example scams in which the perpetrator pretends to be a potential romantic partner or new friend. In these scenarios victims can often develop genuine feelings, and even love, for the person who is defrauding them. So once the true nature of the fraud is revealed, victims don’t just suffer monetary loss but also endure the additional burden of losing a person they considered a romantic partner or valued friend.

The emotional damage from becoming a victim of fraud has serious long-term ramifications as well. In a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, a group of researchers found that fraud victims can suffer “major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, lower subjective health ratings, and increased functional somatic complaints.” The study also found that “financial abuse is associated with premature mortality and greater hospitalization.” These are very serious issues, and they go far beyond mere monetary loss.

There is also a question of stigma. The vast majority of elder fraud cases go unreported, and law enforcement professionals have long speculated that victims hesitate to report such crimes at least partly because of embarrassment or fear. According to a briefing by the National Center on Law and Elder Rights, many older adults fear that if they admit they’ve been duped by a scammer, they could end up in a nursing home or lose control of their finances.

Victim stigma is a real issue, and we will cover it more in future posts. For now, it is worth it for us to acknowledge the human cost of fraud, and look past the headline numbers and to see the impacts on the people we love and care about.

Welcome to SAFE’s blog section! This is a place where we plan to share thoughts on what we do, how we do it, emerging issues in the field, and how you can get involved.

For our inaugural post, here’s a little bit about ourselves. Seniors Against Fraud and Exploitation (SAFE) has a singular and clear vision: to eliminate the financial exploitation of older adults. While there are many other great nonprofits serving older adults, we intend to fill an important gap as we perform our mission each day: using open source intelligence and statistical analysis to paint a clear and reliable picture of elder fraud in America.

So what does that mean exactly? Consider it from the perspective of the folks who came together to create SAFE. Our leadership includes former officials from the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, CIA, and other agencies; lawyers who work with older adults on trusts, estates, and retirement issues; medical and behavioral health experts; and other professionals who serve older adults.

Those of us who come from law enforcement have long recognized elder fraud as a scourge of nearly epidemic proportions. In our professional lives, we would often gather evidence of fraudulent schemes targeting older Americans – romance scams, grandparent scams, magazine subscription scams, the gamut. And yet – for reasons we will discuss in subsequent posts – elder fraud scams often went uninvestigated, uncharged, and unpunished. At the very same time, our counterparts in legal services, medical and behavioral health, and other sectors both saw – and lamented – a similar pattern of inaction.

In our personal lives, elder fraud would also rear its head. Inevitably, we each would hear anecdotes about elder fraud – from friends who reported their parents and grandparents, exploited by unscrupulous salespeople or bilked of their savings through an internet-enabled scheme. And for some of us, elder fraud hit even closer to home, victimizing our own family members. The costs of this crime, we felt, were significant: emotional and personal as much as they were financial.

We knew our own experiences and collected anecdotes were meaningful. Individual stories can be moving. These stories also have the power to motivate us to action. But there’s one problem. Stories and anecdotes alone do not tell the whole story. Like a scene spied through a keyhole, they present a limited view within a narrow frame. They give you a picture, but not the whole picture. We found ourselves asking questions like: How much elder fraud is there really? Is it more prevalent in some parts of the country than others? What are the most common schemes? Is law enforcement doing enough to fight elder fraud? Who among our law enforcement partners is tackling this scourge the best and how do we replicate their methods?

These are all questions that cannot be answered through reference to isolated anecdotes and individual cases. These questions can only be answered through rigorous, principled methods. We firmly believe we owe it to older adults to try to answer these questions, and we plan to use the techniques fit for purpose: open source intelligence and rigorous, statistical analysis.

For us, this is no intellectual exercise. One of our values is clear communication. We plan to present our findings in highly engaging and accessible infographics. We hope to be a lively and active voice in defense of older adults. Please follow us on Twitter! We hope you will join us.

bottom of page