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His father warned him, but Josh thought nobody could fool him. As reported by a Better Business Bureau study, when Josh Reiss, 20, got an offer to join an internship program he applied for, he was eager to get going on it. The company sent him a $7,000 check and instructed him to buy a computer, software, and assorted other items, then send the remainder back to the company that “hired” him. Dad said it looked “fishy,” but Josh knew best. He used his debit card to wire $6,000 back to the company.

Of course, the company’s check was fake, as Josh’s credit union informed him when they processed it. Now Josh owes the credit union $6,000 because he had nowhere near that amount in his account. His father warned him not to buy anything or pay the company anything until he got confirmation that the company’s check was good. But Josh knew he was too smart to be fooled.

They consider themselves savvy consumers, well-educated, and immune to trickery, but they are the age group most susceptible to scams. Millennials are at the top of the list of people who get fooled by fraudsters, reports the Better Business Bureau study. Who’d have thought? Accepted wisdom and the news media say or imply that the most susceptible to scams are seniors, but the data say they come in last for probability of getting ripped off.

The Better Business Bureau survey found that 83,2 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 81.1 percent of 25-34-year-olds are most at risk for losing money to a crook. People 65 and older are only 73,4 percent, still not good, but lower than younger people just entering the “real world.” Even so, you’d think by the time someone reaches his or her 30s, they’d have learned to be just a little more cautious about whom they do business with. In the words of Danny O’Keefe in “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues,” “You’re not a kid at 33.”

What is it that makes this demographic more susceptible to getting ripped off by scammers? It’s the very quality that gives them a leg up in their careers; they think they can’t lose. It’s something called “optimism bias” or “invulnerability illusion” explains Kendra Cherry in “Understanding the Optimism Bias” on verywellmind.com. It “leads us to believe that we are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than reality would suggest.

Nothing new there. In 1980, ND Weinstein wrote in an article in Personal Social Psychology that most college students believed they were immune from ever having a drinking problem or getting divorced and that they were destined for positive outcomes such as owning a home and living into old age. Young people’s attitudes apparently haven’t changed much. And in that respect, it’s a good thing because they are ready to go out and take on the world.

Too bad they don’t temper their optimism with more critical thinking, but they never have, it seems.

Consumer Reports in June of 2018 suggested that five traits can make someone “an easy mark.”
One is an eagerness for bargains. Always looking for a “good deal”; they’ll enter contests and drawings, thus giving their information to scammers; open all their mail, including sales materials and charity appeals; and answer their phones thus jacking up their susceptibility.

Two, studies found that fraud victims get sucked in by statements from con artists maybe saying a deal is only good for the next 12 hours or claiming people are earning 10 percent a year on an investment. That’s a sales technique as old as sales itself. Give the prospect a deadline after which the deal is off. Millennials more often than not don’t have the savvy or critical thinking ability to spot the technique as suspicious and worth careful consideration.

Three, they lack a defense strategy, jumping right into making a decision rather than giving themselves time to check out the person giving the sales pitch and the company. They also don’t sign up for the “do not call” list and engage scammers on the phone. Hurried decisions often end up as bad decisions.

Four, they are willing to take risks. Because they believe they are invulnerable, they buy into a risky investment or product. No research, just belief they know better than the more “cynical” and “negative” of us.

Fifth, they find themselves in the midst of a personal crisis with jobs, family, finances, and other worries. That doubles the odds of getting scammed, reports a 2013 Federal Trade Commission study. Coping with life can use up “cognitive capacity” that otherwise would spot a scam. It’s called the Swiss Cheese brain. As I wrote in a February 2009 column, “Prolonged stress kills brains cells, creating ‘holes’ where living, functioning brain cells used to be and rational thought can cascade right through. Logical thought processes can, in people who have endured months of high stress, be seriously sidetracked into an almost total disconnect with reality.”

What do they tell themselves, most likely subconsciously, when they come across the “deal of a lifetime” or something “too good to pass up”? “I can’t possibly get screwed,” “I have to trust somebody,” and “they seemed so honest” feed their brains with motivation to buy. One of my favorites, “It was such a good deal, and they were giving away laptops.” Sure it was and sure they were.

Yes, 18-34-year-olds are most vulnerable to being fooled by scammers. But, their ingenuousness is also what makes them successful; they believe they can “do it,” whatever “it” is. Eventually, as they age and life catches up with them, they will become more cautious and less prone to fraud. But right now, they are our renters and employees and can get themselves in financial difficulties because of their ingenuousness and optimism bias.

By Robert L. Cain

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