A montage of different faces.

The most dangerous attitude any consumer can have is what social scientists call the “illusion of invulnerability”—as in, “I’m too smart to ever fall for a con.” No, you’re not, and all the data show that everyone—irrespective of age, education, ethnicity, or gender—has the potential to be scammed, given the right circumstances and a scammer who’s gifted at, in the parlance of the profession, getting his mark “under the ether," in other words, unconscious of risk.

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Moreover, the conventional thinking about victimhood is often wrong: When it comes to falling for scams, it’s millennials, not seniors, who are most vulnerable. Among those who reported losing money to fraud, those in their 20s accounted for 40 percent, the single largest group, vs. 18 percent for those 70 and older, according to 2017 Federal Trade Commission data.

However, older adults who fell victim to scams tended to lose larger amounts of money, compared with younger adults, the FTC found. Experts say losses by the elderly to financial fraud are not only attributable to age-related cognitive decline but also to the fact that the 65-plus generation controls trillions of dollars—and scammers follow the money.

Regardless of age, researchers have been able to identify certain characteristics that distinguish those who get taken in from those who don’t. Doug Shadel, author of “Outsmarting the Scam Artists” (Wiley, 2012), says the following traits surface at far higher rates in victims than in nonvictims.

Being Eager for Bargains

Do you know people who are always on the lookout for investment “opportunities” and bargains, who send away for promotional materials and enter contests and drawings, and who open all their mail (electronic or postal), including sales brochures and generic charity come-ons? That kind of deep, regular exposure to what might broadly be called “the marketplace” makes one ripe to be a scam victim.

Susceptibility to Persuasion

Several studies conducted by Doug Shadel and his colleagues have found that fraud victims respond with greater interest than the general public to certain statements that con artists rely on to ensnare their prey: “This deal is only good for the next 24 hours,” “My clients are earning 30 percent a year on this investment,” or—a standby with veterans, a group that has become a new favorite target for scams—“From one ex-Marine to another ...”

Lacking a Defensive Strategy

Scam victims tend to take fewer measures to prevent or minimize the possibility of fraud. They don’t give themselves time after hearing a sales pitch to think before making a buying decision, they neglect to do thorough professional reference checks, and fewer of them sign up for registries that limit unwanted phone calls.

Willingness to Take Risks

Researchers see a strong correlation between this trait and victimization, in part, they speculate, because high-risk but legitimate investments often have many outward similarities to fraudulent deals, such as the potential to get better-than-market returns and the need to make a snap decision. Thus, similar personality types are drawn to both.

Facing a Rough Patch

If you’ve lost a loved one, gone through a divorce, been laid off from a job, or otherwise experienced some sort of life trauma in the past two years, watch out. According to a 2013 Federal Trade Commission study, your odds of being scammed more than double—most likely because coping with difficult life circumstances takes up cognitive capacity that might otherwise be used to spot scams.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the June 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

How to Avoid Online Scams

Do you know how to protect yourself from online threats? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, host Jack Rico and Consumer Reports' digital privacy expert Thomas Germain play a quiz game to reveal important steps you can take to keep your personal information safe.