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.’ ”
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.