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How Fraud Hits American Indian and Alaska Native Communities

New AARP-sponsored research illuminates the vulnerability of American Indian and Alaska Native communities to fraudulent activities, pointing toward means of addressing the issue.

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Through a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews, the researchers found that American Indian and Alaska Native communities report having had experiences with a wide range of financial scams, both targeted and not targeted to their communities, with their older adults being particularly vulnerable. The research offered valuable insights for empowering American Indian and Alaska Native communities to recognize and prevent fraud within their communities. The authors also noted a need for additional research through a scientifically rigorous survey that would provide a comprehensive understanding of the issues and enable evidence-based strategies to combat fraud.

Recognizing and Naming Fraud
The experiences of American Indian and Alaska Native participants revealed many similarities in the types of scams encountered, concerns for older adults, and a preference for consumer education to come from local, trusted sources. While they report a wide range of scams consistent with those encountered by the general public, they also experience fraud that targets their community and heritage. Examples of such fraud include sales of fake regalia and Native art, fraudulent homeopathic products, and impersonators posing as tribal utility companies demanding payment.

Many of the participants expressed a lack of trust in government and outside organizations and described concerns about shame, teasing, and stigma that often prevent victims from sharing their experiences with fraud. Further, a lack of confidence in law enforcement, the legal system, or banks may deter victims from reporting fraudulent activities or seeking legal remedies.

Participants also noted that their native languages do not have words for scam or fraud. Instead, words like tricking, cheating, lying, stealing, and fake are used to describe the experiences.

Local Leadership
Education about fraud is best conveyed through trusted leaders within American Indian and Alaska Native communities, the participants revealed. Storytelling, including sharing experiences and weaving narratives that resonate with cultural traditions, may be among the most effective ways to spread information and resources about fraud.

Trusted conduits for communicating within the individual communities include tribal or communal leaders and organizations, local media sources, and tribal social media accounts. While outside organizations can provide resources, the researchers suggest that a greater focus on building trust is necessary. Banks, government, and other outside organizations should seek to enhance support systems to increase transparency, improve communication, and provide culturally sensitive services.

Broad Communication
Locally-run campaigns are preferred, but should be far-reaching. Since fraudulent schemes appear in many forms, such as through social media, online ads, emails, text messages, phone calls, mailings, and face-to-face interactions, consumer education should appear throughout these communication channels.

Additionally, with American Indian reservations and rural Alaskan communities covering expansive geographic distances, an effective communication strategy should leverage multiple platforms, particularly tribal Facebook pages, local radio channels, community events like powwows and conferences, and grassroots distribution of flyers.

Methodology
The qualitative research consisted of three minifocus groups with 24 participants each, two traditional focus groups with 46 participants each, and 20 in-depth interviews. All were conducted from March to May 2023. Participants were American Indian and Alaska Native adults ages 18-70 and represented various tribal affiliations, genders, and geographies. Two trained moderators, one of whom is American Indian and the other of whom is Alaska Native, conducted the interviews and focus groups, which were held via Zoom. Participants received an incentive for their time.

For more information, please contact Alicia R. Williams at arwilliams@aarp.org. For media inquiries, please contact External Relations at media@aarp.org.