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Once, Twice, Three Times a Fraud Victim

AARP report explores chronic victimization — and ways to fight it

Fraud victim concerned about credit cards

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En español | He was a scientist granted patents for his discoveries, but he never struck it rich and became ensnared in a sweepstakes scam.

She, too, was successful, the owner of a store and three-unit apartment building. But single, childless and “petrified” of growing old alone, she got entangled in online romance scams.

What the two shared was an apparent need for fulfillment, according to a report — “Addressing the Challenge of Chronic Fraud Victimization” — that was commissioned by two nonprofits, AARP and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. The report explores what drives a person to repeatedly become a victim and what interventions could disrupt the cycle.

A key question about repeat victimization: Are fraudsters’ masterful techniques and continual retargeting of people to blame, or is something more foundational at play?


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Addressing the need for fulfillment, the report says sweepstakes scam victims seek a financial windfall to remedy their lack of resources and sense of “having to do without.” For romance scam victims, the need is for companionship, a craving exacerbated by feeling rejected or unattached.

While these dynamics might apply to onetime victims, chronic fraud victims experience “more intense emotional swings,” the report says. Thus, temporary feelings of fulfillment are replaced with lingering despair once a fraud is exposed, making “the original void much deeper,” it says, and the result is a “heightened vulnerability to future scams."

Among older populations, the likelihood of cognitive decline — while not universal — as a factor in repeat victimization “should not be underestimated,” the report says. Some warning signs: Victims consistently pushing loved ones away, doubling down on secrecy and refusing to entertain alternate explanations, even, for example, “after investing and losing enormous sums of money.” These red flags cause family friction, the report says, with “adult children grieving the loss of a parent they knew, before they have actually passed."

According to the report, the scientist felt the sweepstakes winnings would make his financial dreams come true. In these scams, people give up large sums of money — usually for make-believe “taxes” and “fees” — which, if paid, supposedly will let them collect their “winnings.” The scientist had the best of intentions. He wanted to set up educational funds for his grandkids, ensure a secure future for his wife and give to charity. The longer the scam persisted, the more committed he became to showing his family why they were wrong — and that he had really won. He had not.

Looking for love

The woman who got caught up in romance scams described the persistence of online suitors. She said they profess their love, send digital cards, play songs, bombard their target with texts and “want to know everything about you.” One suitor said he didn't want to meet her family because he was embarrassed they knew he had borrowed money from her. “You just buy into whatever they tell you,” she says. “I'm sorry I did, but I did."

Chronic victimization, the report says, is a phenomenon that appears highly entrenched in the hope that the scam will ultimately work out in the victim's favor, and if it does not, there remains a recurring hope that the next “opportunity” that presents itself will succeed. Other key points in the report:

  • Many victims are in a place where they trust the con artists more than their families.
  • The deeper into the scam a target is, the more challenging it is to escape before victimization.
  • Often chronic victims are unaware they are involved in a fraud and so labeling a victim a victim — or a chronic victim — may not align with their experience.
  • People who refuse to recognize they are caught up in a scam act as a major barrier to successful intervention.
  • Chronic victims are unlikely to be aware of their behaviors and the outcomes of their behaviors, yet, like addicts, some may be driven to fulfill outstanding needs.

Scammers work to build trust and develop long-term relationships with targets, the report says. They work diligently to create a heightened emotional state within the targets by playing upon fear, need, excitement and urgency. When in such a state, victims “are no longer thinking rationally, but, rather, reacting emotionally."

The bad actors make personal connections with targets in order to identify their emotional triggers. They entrench themselves in victims’ personal lives and history. Some make threats and instill fear; some use positive emotional stimuli — winning a prize or finding love — to engender compliance.

Enlisting bartenders, beauticians

As for intervention, fraud education is effective, but many victims or would-be victims don't consider themselves such and are not receptive to victim-focused messaging, the report says. That means education at a grassroots level could be more effective. Partnering with clergy, counselors and bartenders, and at places such as beauty parlors and churches, “is needed to provide the right message and tools to potential or repeat victims,” the report says.

Addressing loneliness, the report suggests partnering with programs such as the U.K.'s  Campaign to End Loneliness, as well as with counselors and mental health institutionsThe Villages nonprofits across the country could play a pivotal role, it says. The Villages are volunteer-driven nonprofits that aim to let older neighbors age in place through services, such as light work around the house, and social connections.

Some of the most effective intervention points could be locations where financial transactions occur so as to delay a victim's ability to send a fraudster money, the report says.

Importantly, victims’ families are critical to preventing chronic fraud. They need to be informed of the warning signs of fraud and the dynamics of victim behavior and have tools to offer support if a scam occurs, according to the report, compiled by Heart + Mind Strategies, a consulting firm in Reston, Virginia.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded With the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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