AARP: Stop Blaming Scam Victims

A new report finds a pervasive, far-reaching practice in the U.S. of placing responsibility for financial fraud on the victims themselves.

By Dorothy Hinchcliff

A new report finds a pervasive, far-reaching practice in the United States of placing responsibility for financial fraud on the victims themselves.

“This practice is both supported by and reinforces a culture whose values, heroes, symbols and rituals create an experience of shame, deprioritization and dehumanization,” says “Blame and Shame in the Context of Financial Fraud.” The AARP Fraud Watch Network and FINRA Investor Foundation co-authored the paper.

Words such as “swindled” and “bilked” put the focus on the fraud victims, even unintentionally, the report said. “Rather than saying a victim was ‘duped’ or ‘fell for it’ — as if the victim were to blame — the focus should be on the criminal and the crime. Saying a perpetrator stole a person’s life savings has a much different connotation than saying a person was duped for $250,000.”

Gerri Walsh, president of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, said in a release that decreasing shame could give victims the confidence to report these crimes, as well as restore their belief that the system can help them.

The report takes a deep dive into why blaming financial fraud victims is so ingrained in American society and what can be done to change the practice.

Although it may be inadvertent, people at just about every level of society blame the victim, the report found. Families, law enforcement, legislators, financial institutions and journalists — as well as the victims themselves — embrace the norms of individualism and self-responsibility. These values feed into blaming the victim rather than the criminal and placing a lower priority on these sorts of crimes, the report says.

The report identified five ways to shift values that reinforce detrimental victim-blaming practices.

Address victim shame

“Increasing efforts to help Americans and, specifically, victims, understand they are not alone, that fraud can happen to anyone, and reporting is a critical first step will help combat shame,” the report said.

One way to do that would be more outreach to victims so they understand the criminal is at fault, not them. It would also help if there were a greater variety of portrayals of financial fraud victims beyond the old, very young or mentally compromised. Humanized storytelling with emotional portrayals of the victims would also help.

Increase focus on the perpetrator and the crime

The media could move responsibility away from the victims if they revealed the “ugly” side of scam rings and their manipulative practices.

Intentionally portraying criminals as villains is critical to changing attitudes.

Make fighting financial fraud a priority

More victims would come forward and have faith in the system if it was clear that financial services, legal, criminal justice and government institutions prioritized financial fraud.

Legislation that provides funding to fight financial fraud might lead to coordinated efforts and demonstrate a high priority placed on protecting U.S. citizens.

Use alternative language

The legal system should use terminology around the magnitude of the impact or the emotional/mental implications of the types of scams and fraud.

Language should indicate the depth and breadth of crime — such as financial attack or assault — that illustrates the crime beyond the numbers. Also, shift language away from generic terms like “scamster” and “fraudster” that tend to downplay the seriousness of the crime. In addition, describe the criminal activity — the criminal stole the victim’s money rather than the victim was duped.

Also put the person first rather than describing them by their disability. For example, say “a person who is blind,” rather than “a blind person.”

Humanize the emotional impact

“Illuminating the personal, emotional impact these attacks have on victims can bring to life the victim’s reality in a way that resonates far more deeply and meaningfully with people. This can serve to transfer blame away from victims.”

Also, in addition to demonstrating how easy it is to be victimized, show the far-reaching impact of financial fraud.

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