Commentary

How our post-truth age has made it easier for scammers targeting the elderly to flourish | Ray E. Landis

May 18, 2021 6:30 am

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Hundreds of thousands of older Americans have answered a call on their telephone in the past few years to hear a voice say “Granddad? Granddad I’m in trouble and I need help.”

Is this a sign of a growing crisis with younger people in our country?

Not exactly. Instead, it is a sign of one of the more persistent telephone scams currently taking place, as criminals try to persuade people who answer these calls that the person calling actually is a grandchild and they need money very quickly to resolve a difficult situation.

It might seem like it would be simple to foil such a scam. These callers don’t know the names of the victims’ grandchildren. But one slip by the person answering the phone, such as saying “Is this Jason?” can give a scammer enough information to convincingly pretend they really are a grandchild in trouble.

The fact this scam continues to claim victims may say something about the state of society in the United States today, as the high rate of broken families and second and third marriages has created complicated family trees. But it also says a great deal about how deception and lying has become commonplace in mainstream American culture.

There have been hucksters throughout the history of the United States, as I discussed when I wrote about the scams that have flourished surrounding COVID-19.

But the grandparent scam seems different. This is not about a miraculous new elixir or a foreign lottery. This is nothing more than a boldface lie about someone’s family, and more and more people seem to be able to comfortably tell this type of falsehood.

The concept of not telling the truth seems to be woven deep into the human psyche. Children learn quickly that telling a lie is the best way to avoid disappointing their parents or avoiding conflict. As individuals grow older, they recognize that lying is not only a way to stay out of trouble, but it can also be used to one’s advantage, whether in a personal, academic, or work environment.

Different aspects of society attempt to discourage lying in different ways. Christianity uses shame, making one of the Ten Commandments “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbors.” Academic institutions and the military have established an honor code which threatens punishment for those who cheat or lie.

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But the business, legal, and political worlds do not always regard deception as a negative.

Terms such as “stretching the truth” are common in negotiations and lying to gain a financial advantage can be regarded as a mark of honor. Not telling the truth in a courtroom is perjury, but the fundamental role of many in the legal profession is to raise doubt about the truthfulness of defendants and witnesses to crimes.

The public seems to expect politicians to make campaign promises they know they cannot keep. Incumbent elected leaders paint a rosy picture when times are bad, while the political opposition claims the sky is falling when times are good. The days leading up to elections are filled with false accusations and stories from candidates’ pasts.

The Trump/Fox News era has taken this to a new level, however.

The lie about former President Barack Obama being born in Kenya began as a campaign accusation, but unlike past false campaign rhetoric, the forces behind this lie never stopped repeating it and convincing many Americans it was true.

It was the foundation of former President Donald Trump’s strategy to lie and never admit the truth, and it allowed him to be the President of the United States for four years.

Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election could be taken as a repudiation of his false statements, but the 76 million votes he received demonstrate many Americans either did not regard his repeated lying as a disqualification for the office of president or believed his untruths, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There’s little hope to change those who accept and even admire his lying, but there may be opportunities to teach those who do not understand how to verify the truth.

Which bring us back to the grandparent scam. We know individuals exist in our society who will attempt to carry out this kind of crime, in larger numbers than we want to admit. But it is troubling to contemplate the number of people who are susceptible to this kind of lie, when it would be relatively easy to learn the truth by asking a few questions or making a call to a child.

We can try to educate people to avoid being scammed by the relatively unsophisticated liars that pretend to be their grandchildren.

But we also have a job to do to educate many Americans about the more sophisticated liars that appear on Fox News or worship at the alter of Trump. They are trying to steal more than money – they want to steal democracy.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis

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