Supporting Fraud Victims Can Be Fraud Prevention
Scammers and fraudsters know that the more vulnerable you are, the more likely you are to get caught in a scam. What makes that scary is that we and our loved ones are all vulnerable at some point. And the worst part: Fraud victims are much more likely to be victims of more scams and fraud in the future. Protecting yourself and your loved ones is essential.
See 10 Situational Vulnerabilities with Lou Baxter for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Louise “Lou” Baxter has been in trading standards law enforcement for twenty years. She worked for East Sussex Trading Standards, where she came across many scam victims. Most of the time, she discovered them too late. They had been scammed, their information was trafficked into other organized crime groups, and they were trapped in a cycle of victimization.
One particular case stood out to her. One scam victim was ninety-two years old and an ex-World War II gunner. He got caught in the scam economy as a money mule. It didn’t matter how many people visited him and told him he was being scammed, he was too stuck in the cycle. When Lou looked into it, she found he’d called six years previously after falling for one scam. He was told that he just shouldn’t respond anymore. She thinks if someone had intervened and supported him then, there might have been a better outcome.
In 2012, Lou started the National Trading Standards Scam Team to try and do something more proactive. She wanted to be able to get to fraud victims before they got too deep into the scams to accept support.
Lou’s team tends to deal with old-school letter scams. Many of these are similar to the scam emails many of us are familiar with. The letter claims you’ve won the lottery, have an inheritance, or have won a sweepstakes – all you have to do is pay an admin fee, but if you don’t pay in seven days the money goes to someone else. Clairvoyance scams are similar but more sinister. Those letters claim that you need to pay for a lucky talisman or something horrible will happen to your family.
The scammers don’t just wait for you to respond to one letter, though. On Monday, you might get a letter saying you’ve won $10 million and you just have to pay a $45 admin fee. On Wednesday, you might get a follow-up letter that you haven’t made a claim and your money is still waiting. Then on Friday, you might get a clairvoyance scam letter saying there’s money in your cards if you send money for a lucky talisman. On Saturday, they might call you.
It’s all linked in together. It’s really clever marketing, which just plays into that too-good-to-be-true messaging that criminals are trying to get across.Lou Baxter
Scammers attack on multiple fronts. Often they target fraud victims with a data mining scam first. The point of that scam is to get your personal information – your name, phone number, ID numbers, email, etc. – so they can target you from all sides. With that information, they don’t have to send you generic letters addressed, “Dear Sir or Madam.” They can use your name and talk about how you need that money for your kids or to care for your aging parents. They can make it personal and convincing.
Trafficking Fraud Victims’ Information
Once someone has fallen for a scam, the scammers put your information on a list. They call them “suckers lists.” The best fraud victims are ones who have already been receptive to scams and fraud. Working from these “suckers lists,” scammers can sometimes get 80-90% of the people they target to fall for their scams. They even put notes with the names to indicate what kind of scams the fraud victims will fall for. If an organization gets a list and sees John Smith is marked as a high roller interested in wine, they know they can target him with a high-value investment scam related to wine and be almost guaranteed to get paid. They purchase the list, target you with more scams and fraud, update the list with what scams you fell for, and sell the list to the next group.
If you respond to one letter scam, your details get sold on to other organized crime groups. Then you get trafficked from one group to the next group.Lou Baxter
How Fraud Victims Become Money Mules
Many scammers like to use their fraud victims as “money mules” to move their ill-gotten gains around. This often starts with something like a lottery scam. They will tell you that you’ve won a lottery, but this lottery does things a little differently. You’ll receive some money, but you have to pass that money along to someone else. Once that money has been moved, you’ll get your winnings – it’s all part of the process.
You move that money along to another fraud victim. That victim moves it to another victim. It’s a massive tangled web until someone finally moves it out of the country. On your end, you expect to finally receive your lottery winnings because you’ve done what was requested. Sometimes you get to keep a few dollars off the top so you feel like you’re getting something. It doesn’t connect that you’ve spent probably $20,000 to get that $5. It’s like gambling, in a way. It doesn’t have the same addiction, but you get the same sort of visceral stimulation.
Scammers love situational vulnerability. Situational vulnerability happens whenever something is happening in your life that would make it easier for you to make an unwise decision you wouldn’t normally make, or make it easier for a criminal to push you into doing something rash. Situational vulnerability makes it much more likely for people to become fraud victims.
Scammers used to comb through obituaries to target grieving families. Bereavement is a situational vulnerability. You’re dealing with loneliness, loss, grief, family pressure, and the material responsibilities of managing a loved one’s death. It’s not easy to make calm and rational decisions in that state. Criminals love to target people in that situation when they’re not thinking clearly.
Other situations causing situational vulnerability are divorce, relationship breakdown, the birth of a child, and periods of mental health struggles. The average person in the UK has four periods of mental health struggles per year. If scammers catch people during one, it’s easy for people to become fraud victims.
Everybody can be vulnerable to being scammed at any point.Lou Baxter
The Economy as a Situational Vulnerability
Currently, the entire economy is a situational vulnerability. We’ve probably all seen on the news that the economy isn’t great. In the UK especially, there’s a cost-of-living crisis. People are talking about net zero, lowering emissions, and saving energy, which requires a move into a green energy marketplace. This is a double whammy of vulnerability. The economy isn’t doing great, and the green energy marketplace is vulnerable because it’s never been done before. People are stressed, afraid, and looking for a change or a way out. Criminals will exploit this. Lou has seen them targeting people with government grant scams. They claim they can provide solutions if you act now, but all they’re really doing is committing fraud.
When the Scammer is a “Friend”
For fraud victims dealing with cognitive decline, early-onset dementia, loneliness, or social isolation, the situation can be even worse. If someone is repeatedly targeted by a scammer, they can actually cross a barrier so they feel like the criminal is a friend. It’s similar to a romance scam. The victim develops a relationship with the scammer, so in order to get help, they first have to admit this friend they’ve made is stealing their money.
Admitting that they have been scammed and what that has caused can be catastrophic for some fraud victims. If they really admit how much they lost and what it means, it can be devastating for their mental health. Often they deny they ever respond to obvious scams. Sometimes they flat-out lie. Part of getting help for these victims is having empathy. It needs to be okay for people to talk about what happened so they can receive support.
It’s got to be inclusive so that they feel that they’re in control of their own destiny … it’s about what’s best for each victim. We can’t help everybody because some people are too entrenched, which is what I find difficult.Lou Baxter
When Lou was going through a divorce, she was vulnerable. She didn’t realize it, though, until she was looking back at the situation when she was no longer vulnerable.
Lou fell for counterfeit goods that she bought for her children for Christmas. She was stressed, she felt guilty because she and their father were splitting up, and she didn’t think her kids had enough for Christmas. Luckily, her eight-year-old spotted that they were fake. Lou had the wherewithal to understand how to get her money back, but she only got some of it back.
In that situation, her stress and panic made her unaware and vulnerable. In her situational vulnerability, she made an unwise decision. If she had been contacted by someone else with a different scam during that vulnerable time, she is very aware that she might have gotten caught in it.
Scamming and Domestic Violence
Lou’s team is currently researching the similarities between scamming and domestic violence. There are more similarities than you might expect. Our understanding of domestic abuse is evolving. It’s not just about being physically injured. It also involves gaslighting, emotional abuse, and control, which are just as harmful as physical abuse. And those are the same tactics criminals use to get fraud victims to become victims.
In both scams and domestic abuse, there’s constant emotional abuse, coercion, and control. The average domestic violence victim takes seven tries to finally leave. The same is true for fraud victims. If someone falls for a scam, they’re more likely to be a repeat victim within three months.
The language we use is wrong. We trivialize it. … It’s not a trick. It’s a criminal offense where people are being deliberately targeted, groomed, and then their information is being trafficked.Lou Baxter
As society and law enforcement, we blame the victims. We ask why they didn’t leave the abusive partner, or why they responded to that obviously suspicious letter. There’s lots of victim blaming and shaming. And that doesn’t make people confident in reporting it and getting help and support. Only 5-15% of scams are reported. What’s the point, if reporting isn’t going to get them their money back or get them any support?
Support for scam victims needs to be across the public and private sectors, law enforcement, and financial institutions. Peer-to-peer support and education are essential. If we build community resilience, it will stop criminals from infiltrating. It also makes it a normal topic of conversation and takes away the shame element.
Support for Fraud Victims
There is some support available for fraud victims. In the UK, there are local Trading Standards partners that can help. A large part of Lou’s team’s investigative work is seizing criminals’ lists in order to identify victims. They send that information to local authorities so they can intervene and offer support.
There are also other things that can be done. A call blocker can be used to block the scammer’s calls, causing some friction in communication. Working with financial institutions can help insure fraud victims’ accounts are protected.
Lou’s team also runs Friends Against Scams, a proactive education campaign. It offers twenty minutes of online learning about scams, and at the end offers suggestions for what you can do to help. For example, former fraud victims can become “scam marshals.” Scam marshals report what kinds of scam letters and calls they are receiving. Lou’s team can see exactly what’s going out so they can try to combat it. Scammers diversify fast, so having this information helps the team stay on top of their new techniques.
Education to Combat Scams and Fraud
Since October 2016, Friends Against Scams has trained over a million people. What they found was that most scam awareness campaigns weren’t connecting because there were just too many messages. Your bank says one thing, your local police department says another, other organizations say something else. So they switched it around. Friends Against Scams focuses on how to identify if someone you love is being targeted.
People tend to pay attention more because they want to know how to protect their mom or their best friend. And it ends with social responsibility. You have the knowledge, so what can you do about it? You can talk about it on social media and become a scam champion. Friends Against Scams provides educational materials for free, so you can train other people.
Let’s deal with this together. Let’s try and support and actually take away the shame element, get people talking about the scams, and get that peer-to-peer support.Lou Baxter
Scammers want to separate fraud victims from the people who might warn them it’s a scam. If we work together and stop treating being a victim like a shameful thing, we can provide support and help combat scams and fraud.
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