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Study identifies people susceptible to online scams

If you are feeling lonely, worried about debt, recently lost your job, or experienced a negative change in your financial status, I’m afraid I have some more bad news for you this morning.

You are a prime candidate for online fraud, too.

So says a new study commissioned by AARP. The study identified more than a dozen behaviors, life experiences and knowledge attributes that make people more susceptible to online schemes.

“While previous studies have profiled victims of scams such as investment and lottery fraud, and some have looked at similarities across victim types, few studies have attempted to profile online fraud victims,” wrote the authors of the 95-page study released last month, “Caught in the Scammer’s Net: Risk Factors that May Lead to Becoming an Internet Fraud Victim.”


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Specifically, the authors identified nine behaviors, the four life experiences mentioned above and two knowledge attributes as influential factors in one’s ability to resist online fraud.

The risky behaviors are as follows:

  • Clicking on pop-up promotions for such things as weight-loss products or money-making opportunities.
  • Opening emails from unknown senders.
  • Selling products over online auction sites.
  • Signing up for free, limited-time trial offers.
  • Downloading apps.
  • Making purchases through an online payment transfer site.
  • Visiting a website that requires reading a privacy policy.
  • Visiting a website that requires reading a terms of agreement statement.
  • Being impulsive.

As for the two knowledge attributes, the authors described them as:

  • Being unaware that banks do not send emails to customers asking them to follow a link to verify personal information.
  • Being unaware that a privacy policy does not mean the website will not share their information with others.

The survey of more than 11,000 individuals age 18 and older was conducted for AARP by GfK Group, a New York-based market and consumer information company, between Nov. 23 and Dec. 30 of last year. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

Doug Shadel, one of the three authors of the study, said the primary purpose was to determine how victims of online scams differ from nonvictims.

What they found, he said, was that – regardless of age – people coping with personal or financial stress are more likely to be susceptible to online scams.

“I liken it to catching a cold,” Shadel told the Journal. “Cold germs are everywhere, and some people catch a cold and some don’t.”

And those more likely to catch a case of the sniffles, he said, are those who don’t have “a strong immune system.”


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Shadel, a former fraud investigator and now state director for AARP in Washington state, said the study should change the way people approach fraud prevention. While it’s still appropriate to emphasize the standard do’s and don’ts, he said, it’s also important to consider whether an individual is experiencing one of these negative life experiences.

“It makes you more likely to be taken,” he said. “I think that’s the bottom line.”

Shadel said he also found a disconnect between Americans’ genuine concern about becoming a victim of online fraud and their laissez-faire approach to protecting their online privacy.

“One-third of the total sample said they had never changed their password on their online banking account – that’s a lot of people. And one-third had not changed their password on their personal email account,” he said.

“That was pretty shocking to me.”

The study also found that among those individuals who use the Internet:

  • Roughly one in five (19 percent) engage in seven of the 15 behaviors or life experiences that put them at a higher risk of being scammed online.
  • Just under two-thirds (65 percent) were the target of at least one online scam last year.
  • Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) are worried about being scammed online.

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.