FTC's con game database for 2010.

How to protect your pockets.
March 22 2011 7:14 AM

The Grifter's Hit Parade

America's most popular confidence games, 2010.

(Continued from Page 1)

Who are the marks? I would have guessed they're mostly old people, but, in fact, people aged 70 and older accounted for only 7 percent of the total; the only age group responsible for a smaller share was those aged 19 and under, and of course kids are usually too young to swindle. The sucker mother lode, I'm shocked to report, is my own slice of the baby boom age cohort, ages 50 to 59. We supplied 24 percent of fraud complaints in 2010. Fortysomethings were a whisker behind us with 23 percent. Roughly the same pattern held in 2008 and 2009 (though in 2008 the fortysomethings pulled ahead to 26 percent).

Before Midge Decter seizes the opportunity to blame my generation's credulousness on the same spirit of naive exploration that characterized youth in the 1960s—sex, drugs, radical politics, etc.—she should note that the earliest baby boomers, who created most of the ruckus, have already graduated to the 60-plus cohort, which matches the over-70 set's modest 7 percent of consumer-fraud complaints. When the 1960s ended I was only 11 years old. But I will admit that this isn't the first time my age cohort's collective smarts was called into question. In 2008 it was identified by Neil Howe, a longtime parser of generational identities, as "the dumbest generation." Still, a simpler explanation for the fiftysomethings's pre-eminence is the Willie Sutton principle. Con artists are probably likeliest to target people who have lived long enough to accumulate some money but not so long that they've stopped working and started drawing down those savings as they enter retirement.

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On the other hand, when you look only at complaints to the FTC about the most common con—identity theft—the Willie Sutton principle evaporates. My cohort represents only 15 percent here; the pre-eminent cohort complaining about identity theft is people in their 20s, who represent 24 percent. Perhaps with identity theft the greater wealth of the fiftysomethings is offset by an inability to match twentysomethings in time spent on computers and smartphones.

We end with a geographic breakdown. My own beloved metropolitan statistical area of Washington and its suburban environs provided 24,671 complaints to the FTC, which far surpasses the absolute number received from anyplace else. But before you make too much of that, please note that on a per capita basis, Greater Washington's way down in 32nd place. In 2010 the nation's capital for consumer complaints about getting conned was not Washington, D.C., but Dunn, N.C. Dunn logged a mere 805 complaints, but that gave it the highest rate of complaints per capita—740 complaints per 100,000 people. I couldn't tell you what earned Dunn the distinction of being Suckertown, USA. But a quick Google search turned up that only four days ago a convenience store owner in Dunn allegedly told a customer who won the lottery that her ticket did not, in fact, win, then tried to cash nearly $90,000 in winnings himself.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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