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Many Victims Struggle With Mental Health in Scams’ Aftermath

Experiencing fraud can often be both financially and emotionally devastating

Scam victims are often left with mental health issues as a result of their ordeal.
Anchiy / Getty Images

Rose Stein’s life took a disastrous turn this year, and it all started with a nine-word Instagram post. Stein, 75, who’s divorced and lives in the Los Angeles suburbs, had long admired a certain TV journalist. When she found his profile on social media last April, she decided to post a little kudos: “You did a great job on the last show.” Later she received a message that appeared to be from the journalist: “Thank you so much for being a fan.”  

The message suggested they start communicating through Skype for more privacy, and they began a friendly repartee. Then one day, Stein remembers, “he writes to me, and he says, ‘I'm going to send you a gift.’ And I said, ‘I don't want anything. I’m just happy with our friendship.’ And he said, ‘No, when I have special fans, I want to send them a gift.’ ”

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She had no idea that this “gift,” which he told her was coming from Switzerland, would become a life-altering nightmare that grew increasingly bizarre. The supposed shipping company began to ask her to pay fees and taxes to continue the international shipment, and the “journalist” urged her to pay because his own money “was tied up.” Eventually, the company told her it had discovered that the package contained cash, and she’d be charged with money laundering if she didn’t pay $15,000.   

It continued demanding ever more money — sometimes through wire transfer or in the form of gift cards or Bitcoin — even after she told the company she only had $500 left to buy groceries and pay her bills.

Too bewildered and ashamed to tell anyone, Stein says, “I’m crying every day. I don’t know what to do. And I’m taking money out of my retirement and my savings that I had saved for years.” At one point, she adds, through tears, “I was going to kill myself.” She drove herself to a hospital, where she was quickly admitted. When she told the psychiatrist on duty her story, he said, with sympathy, “You’ve been scammed.”

Stein ended up losing about $70,000 to the scammer impersonating the journalist she so admired. She’s been dealing with the emotional fallout ever since.

Beyond money loss

Americans reported losing a record-breaking $6.1 billion to fraud in 2021 — skyrocketing from more than $3.3 billion the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Those numbers don’t begin to reveal the real impact of these crimes, however. Not only are scams widely thought to be grossly underreported, but victims’ suffering goes far beyond drained bank accounts.

Two-thirds of scam victims in a 2015 FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) survey reported experiencing negative emotional consequences specifically as a result of the fraud. “That ranged from severe anxiety, to sleep disorders, depression, PTSD,” says Christine Kieffer, senior director at the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. “So these are real trauma symptoms.”

Although victims of other kinds of crime may have similar reactions, fraud adds a few different elements, says Stacey Wood, co-editor of the 2022 book A Fresh Look at Fraud, a compendium of the latest research on fraud. Wood, a psychology professor at Scripps College, works extensively with scam victims. “What’s different with fraud victims, is that their constellation of symptoms includes negative thoughts about themselves. And so they could be thinking, are they not smart? Is there something wrong with their cognitive abilities, their ability to judge others?” 

If someone breaks into your house and takes your television, Wood notes, “that’s very scary and violating, yes, but it doesn’t make you think, ‘I’m not good at making decisions.’ ”

And robbery victims may receive more sympathy and support from others, Kieffer says, because “we don’t necessarily put the onus on the victim,” as people do in fraud cases.

Nearly half (47 percent) of the FINRA survey respondents blamed themselves for the crime; 61 percent said they were too trusting. A majority reported feeling angry, regretful, betrayed, helpless and embarrassed.

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Everyone’s reaction to being victimized by a scammer may be a bit different, says Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network: “I can tell you I’ve had every single solitary emotional response from victims. I’ve had people cursing and screaming, I’ve had people crying, I’ve had people numb, I’ve had people in shock. There is no necessarily right way to respond.”

A common reaction, though, is to feel profound shame and self-blame — as detailed in “Blame and Shame in the Context of Financial Fraud,” a report this year from the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. Stein says she felt deeply ashamed by her experience, so much so that when the psychiatrist told her healing would start by sharing her story with friends and family, she responded, “I don’t think I could tell my kids. I don’t think I could tell anybody. I’m so ashamed, I feel like my soul is tarnished. … I can’t believe that it went on for so many months and I believed all this. I felt stupid, like I had no value anymore.” Briefly, death seemed like the only way to free herself from the pain.

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Nofziger, who oversees the toll-free AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360), says, “We hear that on the phone: ‘I don’t know what else to do. I might as well just kill myself.’ ” She notes that the trained volunteers who take Helpline calls “take all harm threats seriously” and assist victims in finding the help they need.

There are no statistics on the number of people who have died by suicide after a scam, but the anecdotal evidence is disturbing, including an 82-year-old Alabama man who died by suicide last year after losing his life’s savings to a prize-winning scam. Teenagers around the country have died by suicide after being targeted for sextortion, when victims are threatened or coerced into sending explicit images online, then blackmailed. (The FBI warned of an increase in sextortionists targeting teenagers, which “has resulted in an alarming number of deaths by suicide.”)

The amount of money lost — or the importance of the loss to someone’s overall budget — can affect the emotional toll. If a victim loses $10,000 and has no other savings, for instance, they may experience more symptoms of trauma than someone who lost the same amount but had more in the bank, Kieffer says. Another factor that can exacerbate a victim’s trauma, according to Kieffer: If another person, such as a spouse, is negatively affected by his or her involvement in a scam, that “secondary victimization compounds your sense of responsibility.”  

Mental health issues affect the physical body as well. Stein says that during her four-month ordeal, she lost more than 20 pounds, started smoking two packs of cigarettes a day (she’d usually have one or two cigarettes, at most), couldn’t sleep and her blood pressure soared.

Grief

Nofziger compares recovery after a scam to the grieving process: “Tomorrow, you might feel a little bit better than today, but you are not going to necessarily forget about what happened to you.” That’s particularly true if you’ve lost a lot of money, because “you’re going to have to be reminded on a daily basis when you have to cut your costs and redo your budget.”

The grieving can be deepest in the case of a romance scam, Kieffer says: “We all know that when you break up with somebody, even when on good terms, there's a sense of loss. So imagine what you’d feel like if it was all built on lies.”

How to help a loved one who’s been victimized by fraud

Listen without judgment. “A lot of people are afraid to tell a loved one they are a victim because they’re afraid of how they’ll react,” Krough says. “Don’t judge or scold.”

Lead with kindness and empathy. “Say, ‘I don’t know how to fix this. But I’ll walk through this with you. And I’ll be there for you,’ ” Nofziger suggests.  

Help them disconnect from the scammer. If the scam came via email, text message or phone, and the target isn’t very tech-savvy, you can help them block the criminal to make sure they’re no longer in contact.

Keep them engaged. Invite your loved one to a movie or out to lunch; “help them reenter the world,” Nofziger says, “just as you would do if they were grieving a death.”

It can be like mourning a death, Nofziger says of romance scams, “because this person did technically die to you. The dream died. So there’s no quick getting over it. There’s no ‘you need to move on.’ Like, you don’t say that to someone who just lost a spouse — ‘It’s time to move on.’ I think letting people express their sadness and their anger is a healthier thing.”

You also could be more isolated than you were before meeting the scammer, notes Jessica Krough, a program manager with AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. “You might have lost friendships because you’ve been spending your time chatting with this other person, and now [when you realize they’re a scammer], you don’t have friends to rely on,” just when you need kindness and support.

Sharing your experience

Recovery often starts with telling others about your experience, says Nofziger, who suggests “reaching out for help to any place you feel comfortable,” whether that’s AARP (see below), your therapist, your physician or a trusted friend or family member.

But many scam victims don’t tell their closest friends and relatives after they’ve lost money in a scam. Wood says she’s talked to victims who kept silent about their experience for years, “and it was just eating them up inside and creating this distance from family members. But they found that when they just admitted that they had lost this money, they were able to start the healing.”

It’s important to realize that in sharing your truth, you may help others avoid victimization. Kieffer says that when scam victims realize they have a positive role in this way, “it gives them a sense of empowerment, a sense of control over what happened.”

A few days after Stein was admitted to the hospital, she asked a good friend if she could come over and talk. They spent the day together, and she unspooled the story. “I started feeling a little better when I unloaded it with her,” she says. The hardest thing to do was to tell her son. “I have something horrible to tell you,” she said. “I’ve been scammed.”

Afterward, “I felt a sense of relief. … He’s been very kind,” as have her close friends.

It’s been a process. For a while, Stein says, “I was waking up screaming in the middle of the night,” and she’s had panic attacks. She’s joined the AARP support group several times and found it helpful, particularly hearing the experiences of other scam victims — including one woman who lost more than $200,000. “Oh my God, this is a smart lady,” she thought. “This can happen to anybody.”

That is an important point for victims to internalize, says Alan Castel, author of Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging. Castel, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, studies the aftereffects of scams. “This can happen to anyone, just like anyone can get into a car accident or anyone can get robbed.” He notes that scammers are skilled manipulators, targeting victims when they’re at their most vulnerable, often when they’re in a heightened emotional state. Perpetrators of fraud are “psychologists working in the wild, basically,” who have amassed an incredible amount of data that helps them determine what works and what doesn’t.

Several months after the scam was revealed, Stein knows the likelihood that she’ll get that money back is slim — though she reported the incident to the police and the FBI. But, she says, “I think I’m much better. ... I’m starting to have an interest in doing things. I know I’m going to get through this.”

As for the actual journalist Stein thought she’d contacted? “I do watch him,” she says. “I’ve separated him from the scammer.”

Where to find mental health support

AARP Fraud Watch Network™ support group 

The VOA ReST (Resilience, Strength and Time) program, a collaboration between AARP and Volunteers of America (VOA), offers free online facilitated emotional support sessions for fraud victims. You can attend as many sessions as you’d like, just register in advance online.

Cybercrime Support Network’s (CSN) Peer Support Program

CSN, in collaboration with the FINRA foundation, offers a free support program for romance scam survivors, who can attend 10 one-hour group sessions, facilitated by a mental health counselor. Its focus is on helping victims combat feelings of loss, embarrassment and isolation, while teaching cybercrime awareness and education. Find out more here.

Successful Aging through Financial Empowerment (SAFE)

Wayne State University’s Institute of Gerontology provides free financial counseling for older fraud victims. You can find free workshops and financial resilience resources on its website.

How to fight back against scammers

1. Report the crime. File a police report. If you experience resistance, persist; you may need documentation of your experience down the road. You can also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov. Both agencies use fraud reports to target their investigations; the more information they have, the better they can identify patterns and link cases.

2. Learn more about fraud. Arm yourself with information about how these criminals operate to empower yourself to spot and avoid scam attempts. “Scammers sell their contact lists to other people,” Castel says. “So if you’ve been scammed once, or even if you just stay on the phone [with a scammer] for more than five minutes, you’re now on a list and can be called back again.”

Castel calls this a “really cyclical and dangerous situation.” AARP’s Fraud Watch Network site (aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork) includes news on fraud and scam-fighting tips to thwart criminals. There, you can sign up for biweekly “Watchdog Alerts” by email or text to stay on top of the latest schemes.

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Scam Tracking Map

No matter where you live, fraud is never far away. Report a scam or search for existing scams near you.