Minnesota woman scams $840,000 from elderly neighbors

Carolyn J. Cassar, of Rochester, Minnesota, continually suffered terrible tragedies and needed money. Her daughter died in a car crash. Her ex-husband was accused of killing her sister overseas. Unfortunately, her elderly neighbors believed the tales of woe. Over six years, they gave her $840,000. Cassar has pleaded guilty.

Rochester woman with dream of lavish villa told wild tales to bilk $840K from elderly couple, on

The end of the article reports that every year, approximately 2.1 million elderly Americans are victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation. It’s a problem that is only going to get worse.


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I ran across an article some time ago that could be very relevant to this sad story.

As I read the story, I couldn’t help wondering why this couple would give away all their money, just like that. It’s not as if they were in a romantic relationship with the woman who scammed them. It’s not as if they were lured by promises of large returns on an investment. And the tales this woman told them were unlikely to say the least. Not impossible, but unlikely. Her ex-husband was accused of killing her sister? A former business associate had stolen the money from her father’s estate?

I understand that they believed they would get their money back once this former business associate was brought to justice. Yet even if that had been true, it still sounds like an iffy proposition, not one to risk your life savings on. Add to that the fact that this couple had always been so careful with their money throughout their lifetime, and anyone must wonder why in old age they seemed to throw their natural caution to the winds. The husband himself seemed at a loss to understand why he fell for it.

Why in general do people fall for scams, or more broadly, fall under the influence of abusers of all kinds? There are numerous reasons for that, many of which play no part in this particular story. However, there is a factor that always has to be present to one degree or another. I’d call it simply credulousness: the tendency to believe or accept what someone is saying rather than questioning or challenging it.

Credulousness can arise from various circumstances. Sometimes it’s a matter of “believing what we want to believe.” If someone makes wonderful promises to us, it may be tempting to believe them, however dubious. Or if we suspect a partner is being unfaithful but he or she denies it or tries to explain it away, it may be tempting to believe what they say and remain “in denial” about what’s really going on.

Credulousness can result, not just from believing what someone else says, but from doubting one’s own perceptions or lacking faith in oneself. People with verbally abusive partners who are forever criticizing them and running them down can easily slip into the habit of doubting themselves and believing that all the bad things their accuser is telling them must be true.

Often credulousness is just a trait by itself: the tendency to accept what others say, perhaps out of a general belief that “people usually tell the truth”—which is not always the case by any means!—or that if a story sounds “authentic,” or comes from an “official” source (like a newspaper), then it must be true. Often too, people innocently repeat myths without realizing they’re untrue.

Several times on this site alone I’ve seen links to questionable newspaper articles that readers seemed disposed to take at face value. When it was possible to check their authenticity, some turned out to be serious distortions of the facts. I only wonder whether the journalists who perpetrated the offending articles were being too credulous themselves in repeating what their informants told them—or whether they were knowingly twisting the truth in pursuit of some agenda.

But how is that relevant to the couple who got scammed in this story? Were they always so credulous? I don’t suppose they were! Yet as the Star Tribune tells us: “Older Americans lost nearly $3 billion to financial exploitation in 2010 alone, according to a study by insurance company MetLife Inc. With the nation’s senior population at 50 million and growing, the problem will only get worse.” It’s not just that some elderly people get confused and “can’t think straight,” though I’m sure that must play a part. It can also be about the personality changes that sometimes result from the effects of aging on the brain.

We all know for instance that some people who grow senile can become suspicious of others, even paranoid, imagining people are “out to get them.” Anyone like that of course is less likely to be trusting of others and start giving their money away. However, the opposite can also happen. A study published a year ago found, among other things, that

Damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) through injury or normal aging can make people more gullible to misleading advertising… This finding may explain why some older people are more likely to fall victim to deception and scams…

There’s a summary here:

Brain Damage Makes Elderly More Vulnerable to Scams

The relevant region of the brain is believed to have a crucial role in the doubt and skepticism that’s so necessary to normal information processing. If this region deteriorates in old age, a person may suffer from what the researchers called a “doubt deficit”—and become too trusting of what they’re told.

So if anyone has elderly relatives, it’s just as well to keep a watchful eye on them to make sure they’re not being exploited.

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