Opening our minds to skepticism

I am rerunning a few of my earlier posts over the next few weeks. This one, about critical thinking skills, was from February, 2014. I thought it was especially relevant during the current U.S. election cycle.

All too often, we read stories about people who are duped by scammers. Sadly, the victim is often elderly and, tragically, large sums of money – money that they can’t afford to lose – are frequently involved.

As my late father’s physical and mental health started to decline, I worried about him falling for the various come-ons he received in the mail and on the phone. He had a good, analytical mind when he was younger, but I could tell that his aging brain was becoming less and less able to discern fact from fiction. Fortunately, I was able to protect his bank accounts and credit card before anything happened so he and his finances were safe.

Scams_ComputerScammers continue to devise more sophisticated and devious ways to separate people from their money, but there are still plenty of victims responding to notices of large lottery wins, promised riches from Nigerian princes, and a variety of phony phishing emails. My innate skepticism will help protect me from falling for these scams now, but I worry that when I am much older, will I still be able to avoid being taken advantage of?

The same critical thinking skills that make me disregard offers that are “too good to be true” lead me to question much of what I read on the Internet and in social media. I can always count on a handful of “friends” posting items on Facebook or forwarding me emails (along with protestations of outrage) with a story sent to them by some equally outraged person. Most don’t pass my “smell test” and, after a quick search on various fact-checking sites, the stories turn out to be just that, stories.

I don’t think these people are stupid or especially gullible but when they read something that fits very neatly into their political or ideological mindset, they tend not to question its authenticity. This is how hate, lies, and rumors are spread; one unquestioned falsehood at a time.

We live in a society of people who self-select their news. If one source’s slant doesn’t lean in the right direction, simply choose another that does. We also tend to socialize, and even live in communities, with like-minded people. That way we don’t have to question our beliefs or, god forbid, alter them in any way. I guess this makes us feel  comfortable in our convictions, but does it make us better citizens? Does listening to only one side of a story before deciding on its merits support our intellectual integrity? I think most would agree that it does not (although we still do it because, really, it’s others who need to open their minds, not us… right?).

Non-critical thinking makes us more vulnerable to scammers. If we trust a source so completely that we never question its accuracy, why would we question the authenticity of an “exclusive offer” from the same source (or one of its advertisers)? Even better if the offer is also couched in language that supports our biases. If we are distrustful of something or someone, are we not more likely to respond to something that reinforces our  suspicion?

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”  - Mark Twain
“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” – Mark Twain

Less incendiary, but maybe in some ways worse, are the “innocent” but untrue items that are re-posted virally. If the poster had done some quick research or applied simple logic, they would have realized that the story doesn’t make any sense. In this category are those emails/posts that promise riches/good luck if you continue the chain (and usually include dire warnings if you don’t), and urban legends like entering your ATM PIN backwards will summon help. Although new myths are being created all the time, many have been around for years and are repackaged and posted over and over again.

When we get in the habit of using magical thinking in place of critical thinking, we make ourselves more vulnerable to hoaxes and fraud. Best case, we just irritate our friends and end up looking stupid, but worst case, we open ourselves up to scammers and thieves.

Recent studies have shown that changes in the brain as we age make the elderly more trusting. The negative “gut feelings” a younger person might experience aren’t felt as strongly by an older person. For this reason, we must be alert when caring for an older adult to protect them from unscrupulous individuals and businesses.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as we age so we aren’t as likely to become victims. We can actually practice our critical thinking skills, learn to be more analytical, and train our brains to question when something just doesn’t ring true.

The enemy of scammers and hoaxers is common sense, questioning, and research.

Be their barricade, not their bridge.

Sharks circling the mailbox

Like many retirees, my husband and I have been focused on getting rid of the clutter around our house. Over the years we have managed to collect a lot of stuff; stuff that is no longer relevant to our lives. But, as we continue to offload piles of things we’ve acquired over the years, there continues a flood of unwanted and useless stuff through our front door, via the U.S. Postal Service. Despite our best efforts to keep on top of it, we often find ourselves drowning in annoying junk mail.

In addition to the grocery store flyers, coupon mailings, and offers of various types of insurance coverage, most of the remaining useless pre-trash fits into one of the following categories:

shark with stamp

Let us help you acquire more debt

Amid the destruction and turmoil the 2007-2008 financial crisis caused, we found one small ray of sunshine peeking through the rubble: no more unwanted credit card offers junking up our already junky junk mail.  Although nothing had changed about our personal credit-worthiness, all of the various banks, retail chains, airlines, etc. suddenly went silent. They no longer were anxious to offer anyone with a pulse the opportunity to accumulate debt by applying for their credit cards. When the economy melted it was as if a spigot had suddenly been turned off and we were grateful for the reprieve.

Unfortunately, judging from the mail that we have been receiving lately, that reprieve is over. Almost daily it seems that we get multiple offers of cards that will earn us airline mileage, free hotel stays, or cash back on specific purchases.

Just as they did before the financial meltdown, these offers go straight to the shredder. We have the cards we need (just one and a back-up) and we probably aren’t the kind of customers they want anyway since we pay our balance off each month.

Even though you already gave, please give us more

Also junking up our mailbox are donation requests from charitable organizations and non-profits that we already give to. It’s not unusual to send in our annual membership fee and, just a few months later, receive another mailing that looks surprisingly like an annual membership fee request. We have started to keep a spreadsheet listing the organization, what we gave, and when we gave just so we can keep everything straight.

You’d think that these organizations could save a ton of money by just mailing once a year, but obviously these ongoing solicitations must work or they wouldn’t send them. It bothers me to think that these organizations I think so highly of have, as part of their fund-raising tactics, a strategy to fool people into making more than one “annual” donation.

You have several years left on your magazine subscription but how about paying in advance for several years more?

Magazines have been employing the scheme of multiple solicitations for ages. Although I’ve cut way back on my subscriptions, I still receive a few print magazines. Choosing the multi-year subscription option will usually save money but I’ve also found that it gives them more chances to send annoying and confusing solicitations. Long before my subscriptions are up, I start to receive requests to renew, extend, and send gift subscriptions to friends.

And, these are just those mailings from the magazine company. Often magazine sales companies – with no connection to the actual publisher – try to trick subscribers into re-ordering their magazines through them. These are the mailings that are made to resemble legitimate renewal notices or even invoices. I’m fortunate to live in a state that requires magazine companies to disclose the current subscription end date on their renewal notices, but they do their best to camouflage them.

 

As annoying and wasteful as this type of mail is, I worry about a time in the future when my husband and I may be less able to keep track of what is legitimate and what isn’t. When I took over the management of my father’s household and finances as his health declined, I was shocked by the number of sharks ready to feed on those most vulnerable. Without an honest and diligent gatekeeper, it’s easy to get eaten alive.

Opening Our Minds to Skepticism

All too often, we read stories about people who are duped by scammers. Sadly, the victim is often elderly and, tragically, large sums of money – money that they can’t afford to lose – are frequently involved.

As my late father’s physical and mental health started to decline, I worried about him falling for the various come-ons he received in the mail and on the phone. He had a good, analytical mind when he was younger, but I could tell that his aging brain was becoming less and less able to discern fact from fiction. Fortunately, I was able to protect his bank accounts and credit card before anything happened so he and his finances were safe.

Scams_Computer

Scammers continue to devise more sophisticated and devious ways to separate people from their money, but there are still plenty of victims responding to notices of large lottery wins, promised riches from Nigerian princes, and a variety of phony phishing emails. My innate skepticism will help protect me from falling for these scams now, but I worry that when I am much older, will I still be able to avoid being taken advantage of?

The same critical thinking skills that make me disregard offers that are “too good to be true” lead me to question much of what I read on the Internet and in social media. I can always count on a handful of “friends” posting items on Facebook or forwarding me emails (along with protestations of outrage) with a story sent to them by some equally outraged person. Most don’t pass my “smell test” and, after a quick search on various fact-checking sites, the stories turn out to be just that, stories.

I don’t think these people are stupid or especially gullible but when they read something that fits very neatly into their political or ideological mindset, they tend not to question its authenticity. This is how hate, lies, and rumors are spread; one unquestioned falsehood at a time.

Tennis Shoes

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” Mark Twain

We live in a society of people who self-select their news. If one source’s slant doesn’t lean in the right direction, simply choose another that does. We also tend to socialize, and even live in communities, with like-minded people. That way we don’t have to question our beliefs or, God forbid, alter them in any way. I guess this makes us feel smug comfortable in our convictions, but does it make us better citizens? Does listening to only one side of a story before deciding on its merits support our intellectual integrity? I think most would agree that it does not (although we still do it because, really, it’s others who need to open their minds, not us… right?).

Non-critical thinking makes us more vulnerable to scammers. If we trust a source so completely that we never question its accuracy, why would we question the authenticity of an “exclusive offer” from the same source (or one of its advertisers)? Even better if the offer is also couched in language that supports our biases. If we are distrustful of something or someone, are we not more likely to respond to something that reinforces our paranoia suspicion?

Less incendiary, but maybe in some ways worse, are the “innocent” but untrue items that are re-posted virally. If the poster had done some quick research or applied simple logic, they would have realized that the story doesn’t make any sense. In this category are those emails/posts that promise riches/good luck if you continue the chain (and usually include dire warnings if you don’t), and urban legends like entering your ATM PIN backwards will summon help. Although new myths are being created all the time, many have been around for years and are repackaged and posted over and over again.

When we get in the habit of using magical thinking in place of critical thinking, we make ourselves more vulnerable to hoaxes and fraud. Best case, we just irritate our friends and end up looking stupid, but worst case, we open ourselves up to scammers and thieves.

Recent studies have shown that changes in the brain as we age make the elderly more trusting. The negative “gut feelings” a younger person might experience aren’t felt as strongly by an older person. For this reason, we must be alert when caring for an older adult to protect them from unscrupulous individuals and businesses.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as we age so we aren’t as likely to become victims. We can actually practice our critical thinking skills, learn to be more analytical, and train our brains to question when something just doesn’t ring true.

The enemy of scammers and hoaxters is common sense, questioning, and research.

Be their barricade, not their bridge.