If ever there was doubt that online scammers are the type to kick you while you're down, consider this: A new survey finds that depressed people and those who have lost their jobs are at the greatest risk of becoming victims of Internet fraud.
That's according to the AARP, which on Wednesday is releasing the results of a national survey of nearly 12,000 respondents. The survey comes as the agency has plans to roll out its Fraud Watch Network in 12 states in hopes of stemming the ever-spreading tide of online fraud.
"This is the strongest finding to date of how life experiences affect your likelihood of being a victim" of online fraud, said Dennis Shadel of AARP Washington, one of the study's authors. "We suspected it for a long time."
The survey results also zeroed in on behaviors that make people of all ages more likely to fall prey to online fraud, and it figured out how many risky behaviors people tend to engage in before becoming victims. (The answer is seven.)
Among the behaviors:
• Opening e-mail from unknown sources.
• Clicking on pop-up ads.
• Selling items through auction sites such as eBay.
• Buying through online payment transfer sites.
• Being impulsive.
David Bakke, of the Denver-based finance blog Money Crashers, said some of these behaviors can trip up even the Internet-savviest people.
"I sell items online through both eBay and Amazon," Bakke said. About a year ago, he got a purchase order for an item from an international buyer placing the order through a shipping company. It took some research before he figured out that it was a scam.
"I learned that there had been several complaints of fraud from other Internet resellers regarding purchases going to this company," he said. "They would claim the item was never received and then get their money back, and the reseller would lose their merchandise."
Under the "life experiences" category, depression and feelings of isolation are risk factors, as are negative changes in financial status and being concerned about debt.
That didn't surprise Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based securities expert and CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com.
"People who are depressed, who aren't functioning well in other aspects of their lives, they aren't paying attention as well to the details," Siciliano said. "They can be easily distracted, and scammers know this. They go after people who are distracted and are at a disadvantage emotionally."
Shadel likened it to a weakened immune system: If two people walk into a germ-filled room, the one with the weaker immune system gets the cold, he said.
"Most of the time you don't fall for it, but, if you're depressed, all of a sudden that makes you more vulnerable," he said.
AARP Ohio is training volunteers to spread the word about the risk factors. Karen Regina, a retired educator from West Price Hill, showed up for a training session in early March at the Jewish Community Center on Ridge Road in Amberley Village. She's been sensitive to threats of identity theft since 1994, when someone uncovered her personal information and used it to commandeer – and max out – her credit card.
"We've all experienced the unwanted e-mails with links you shouldn't click," Regina said.
Alex Ozols, a San Diego-based defense lawyer, said people can better protect themselves if they know they're at risk.
"From a criminal's perspective, we sometimes ask them, 'Why did you do this, why did you pick this person?' They say, 'I knew they'd be an easy target. I could tell.'"
Ozols warns against sharing too much information with strangers – such as whether you're going through a breakup or have been laid off.
"These scammers or scam artists can only tell what's on the outside. They can't tell if you're hurting on the inside," he said. "If you dress properly, if you look like you're in control, no one's going to take advantage of you."
Don't be a victim
• If you've lost a job or experienced an illness or injury, be aware that this could affect your ability to resist fraud offers.
• Be cautious when online about clicking on pop-ups for things like weight loss, money-making opportunities, or free trial offers that can lead to other scams.
• Know that carrying heavy personal debt can make you more vulnerable to offers on the Internet promising quick money.
• Be aware that experiencing feelings of loneliness or isolation can make you more vulnerable to offers from strangers on dating or singles websites that may lead to a scam.
• Always read any privacy or terms of agreement statements thoroughly before signing them.
• Be cautious about how much personal information you provide over the Internet. The more information a con artist has about a person, the easier it is to steal an identity or commit fraud.