Miller School Researchers Create Tool to Measure Susceptibility to Financial Scams

Article Summary
  • Miller School neuropsychology researchers developed a tool that measures a person’s susceptibility to financial scams.
  • Researchers presented a series of scenarios, some legitimate and some known scams, to 387 respondents.
  • Contrary to popular sentiment, the study revealed older adults are not more vulnerable to these types of scams, in some cases.

Financial scams sap billions of dollars from U.S. adults each year, but most studies have focused on what happens after the deception. Now, a University of Miami Miller School of Medicine research team has developed a tool to measure susceptibility before those scams occur.

An article detailing their study was recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Man holding a credit card and working on his cell phone.
Miller School researchers have developed the ASJ questionnaire to assess a person’s susceptibility to financial scams.

The research team set out to develop and validate an easy-to-administer measure of situational decision-making involving both fraudulent and legitimate scenarios. Sarah Getz, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist formerly with the Miller School’s Department of Neurology, and Bonnie E. Levin, Ph.D., director of the Miller School’s Division of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, created the “Assessment of Situational Judgment” (ASJ) questionnaire. James E. Galvin, M.D., M.P.H., professor of neurology and founding director of the Miller School’s Comprehensive Center for Brain Health, conducted the validation study and principal analyses.

Presenting Real and Fraudulent Scenarios

The ASJ questionnaire asks people how likely they would be to follow through on eight real Florida scams and nine legitimate situations like downloading the Uber app and entering credit card information to use it. The team compared the 387 responses to respondent demographics and cognitive function, aiming to find the most susceptible groups.

“While it is very difficult to rectify the financial situation of someone after they are scammed, if we could identify individuals at risk for financial scamming before they are scammed, we could protect them, their families and their assets,” said Dr. Galvin. “Now, with the ASJ, we can potentially identify those at greatest risk and take preemptive steps to protect vulnerable individuals.

Miller School of Medicine neurologist James E. Galvin, M.D., M.P.H.
Dr. James Galvin hopes the ASJ questionnaire can be used to educate people about financial scams before they happen.

Dr. Galvin said the study found, in some cases, older adults are better at discerning financial scams than younger ones.

“One might think that the technology savviness of younger adults would be protective,” said Dr. Galvin, “but we found that they were highly susceptible to scamming scenarios, perhaps because they lack the wisdom of life’s experiences.”

Older adults with cognitive impairment were more likely to engage in both scams and legitimate scenarios, the research found.

A Tool for Education

Dr. Getz said the new tool holds promise to help clinicians, caregivers and financial advisers who work with susceptible adults.

“The practical application is to educate vulnerable populations, because the more you know, the safer you are,” said Dr. Getz.

Family members might advise seniors, for example, not to give out credit card data over the phone or send money based on an email.

“Some groups may need more oversight, too,” Dr. Getz added, like requiring a witness to online cash transfers for adults with cognition issues.

Dr. Galvin said the team is now collecting a prospective sample of mid- and late-life older adults to test the questionnaire against measures of cognitive and functional ability and biological markers of brain health, including MRI, amyloid PET scans and blood-based biomarkers.

“Collectively, this additional information can help us better understand what exactly puts people at risk for financial scamming and potentially develop preventive measures,” said Dr. Galvin. “The ASJ may provide a way not only of making a baseline assessment but also tracking the effectiveness of the intervention.”

Tags: Comprehensive Center for Brain Health, Division of Neuropsychology, Dr. Bonnie Levin, Dr. James Galvin