Scam Victim Support That Focuses on Victims’ Needs
People are falling for scams and fraud every day. For most of these victims, it’s not just a financial loss – it can be emotionally and psychologically devastating. And often, the scam victim support they receive is limited, if they receive any at all. But there is help and support available to help victims navigate the challenges of being scammed.
See Support to Navigate the Justice System with Rachel Gibson for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Rachel Gibson is the Director of the Center for Victim Service Professionals, which is part of the National Center for Victims of Crime. She tells people that she works with everyone from tattoo artists and hairdressers to nurses, judges, and court advocates, but she’s only half joking. Anyone who will support a victim of a crime in a professional capacity is someone she works with. Her job is to provide technical assistance, training, resources, and other help so those people can better serve the victims and survivors they work with.
Rachel always wanted a career where she could make sure those experiencing the criminal justice system get the support, resources, and justice they want or deserve. But she didn’t plan to work in victim support. Her original plan was to go to law school or become a law enforcement officer. When neither option worked out, she needed a job. A friend told her that the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence was looking for a tech safety specialist and she should apply. She has been working with victims of crimes ever since.
The National Center for Victims of Crime
The National Center for Victims of Crime was started thirty-eight years ago by the family of Sunny von Bülow, a New York socialite who spent the last twenty-eight years of her life in a coma after her husband attempted to murder her. He was convicted of the crime, but his conviction was later overturned. Her family experienced what many families experience going through the justice system – they were failed by a system they thought was supposed to help them get the justice they deserved.
Out of this tragedy, they started the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC). At first, they just connected victims with available resources. Later, they started doing policy work supporting policies to help victims. Now they do a lot of work supporting victim service professionals – people who help support victims. They also offer the Victim Connect Resource Center, a helpline that gives direct support to victims through talk, text, and online chat.
One thing that is unique about the NCVC is that they serve all victims, no matter what type of crime impacted them. Many victims are experiencing polyvictimization – being a victim of multiple types of crime at once. They may be a victim of financial fraud and also experiencing intimate partner violence. Or maybe they are experiencing elder abuse, but also identity theft or tax crimes. Sometimes victims may not realize that they have been victimized, they just know that something has happened. The NCVC supports all victims. They want to provide assistance to those who are pushed away from resources because they don’t fit a specific mold and to connect people to resources that may help.
Supporting Victim Service Professionals
The NCVC does a lot of projects across a lot of areas of the justice system and victim support. But Rachel’s work specifically is providing support and resources for people who work with victims. It’s great work because the people on the ground are the experts in what’s happening in their communities. Her job is to support them and do the deeper dives that those on the front line can’t do.
One example is a financial and tech crimes initiative. Rachel works with several partners, one of which is the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, to provide training to advocates. Advocates could be victim advocates, bankers, bank tellers, or anyone who might encounter this in a professional capacity. The initiative provides training, technical assistance, and resource development. So far, they’ve created a taking action guide for advocates working with victims of financial fraud.
Rachel does a lot of work with scam victim support and financial fraud victim support, as well as financial exploitation, financial abuse, and intersections with other crimes. A big piece is helping people recognize the intersection of financial fraud with other areas. For someone from a community of color, an older adult, or a person with a disability, financial fraud or loss to a scam can have a huge impact on their well-being. Since so much of our lives are happening online now, tech-facilitated crimes and financial crimes often intersect, as well.
Trauma-Informed Scam Victim Support
It’s essential for scam victim support and any kind of victim support to be trauma-informed. That requires thinking about a person’s experience of the justice system start to finish. Rachel often talks about trauma-informed services in terms of “the front door being open.” Sometimes that can be a literal front door – if your accessible entrance to your building is in the back, that’s a problem. Sometimes it can be more metaphorical. If your website is only in English or screen readers can’t read it, the front door isn’t open. If your organization is in a predominantly black neighborhood but all your staff are white, the front door isn’t open.
That first initial contact can make or break how someone experiences that justice system.Rachel Gibson
Rachel wants to help law enforcement and prosecutors understand that when fraud and scam victims look for support in the justice system, that’s often the first time they’ve come into contact with officers or prosecutors. They’re going to have a lot of feelings and trauma. They don’t understand that just because their case takes a year to work through the courts that it doesn’t mean it’s not important.
The goal is to help the system do better by victims and survivors. That’s why victim advocates are so important. They go through the process with the victim to help them understand that unlike on TV, it’s not going to be a quick process. In crimes like scams, financial fraud, and where tech is involved, things have to be researched and money has to be traced. In the case of larger crime stings, it may take even longer. The key to good crime and scam victim support is helping them understand and navigate the system.
Reporting and Victim-Blaming
One of the more publicized crime and scam victim support tools is reporting the crime. Some people don’t want to go to law enforcement. But there are other options besides reporting to law enforcement. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also takes reports of these types of crimes. Unlike law enforcement, they may not follow up, but that doesn’t mean they’re not listening and adding your report to the list of cases they’re working with.
One of the tools you have is making a report … [and] a report doesn’t necessarily mean to law enforcement.Rachel Gibson
The reporting process can be traumatic to victims. That’s another reason why trauma-informed justice is so important. But another major difficulty in reporting is that the process is often not clear or simple, and there is a lot of shame involved. Especially when it comes to scam victims, the narrative can be very similar to intimate partner violence and sexual assault – instead of support, we victim-blame. What were you wearing? Why did you stay? Why did you give them the money? Couldn’t you tell it was a scam?
If I experienced financial fraud, and I hear my community, my friends say, “Well, you were dumb. You gave them the money.” … Many times victims and survivors will not report because they don’t think they have the option or they’re shamed for falling prey to that.Rachel Gibson
When those are the stories people hear, they may not know they have options or may not feel like they deserve justice. Rachel has also heard from many scam victims who went to law enforcement for support, only to be told they couldn’t do anything because the victim “chose” to give the scammer their money.
Scam Victim Support for Vulnerable People
Rachel tells advocates that they should never victim-blame. The fraudsters who do these crimes are smart, and they’re looking for victims who are vulnerable. And anyone can be vulnerable at some point. Isolation makes us vulnerable, for example, and during COVID lockdowns most of us were isolated. It’s important to think about who is being targeted for what sorts of crime, why, and how to help identify it.
In Rachel’s training, she talks about three particular target populations. That doesn’t mean no one outside of these populations can be a victim, but these populations are commonly targeted. One is older adults. They’re often seen as senile or experiencing dementia or Alzheimers. Their friend group is dwindling, so they are more isolated. And they are less likely to run things past friends or family because they don’t want to appear that they’re losing their mental capacity.
A second population is victims of intimate partner violence. This comes back to the polyvictimization idea. Ninety-nine percent of victims reported by the National Network to End Domestic Violence said they wouldn’t leave their abusive relationship because they don’t have the financial means to do so. It’s expensive to live, and therefore expensive to leave. Financial ties can be life or death.
The third population is repeat victims. Rachel hears from people all the time about people who are being victimized and don’t want to believe it. One of Rachel’s close friends is even in this situation – even though Rachel, other friends, her family, and even law enforcement have talked to her, she’s built a relationship with a fraudster and feels like it’s real. People who have already been scam victims often have their information sold to other scammers to be targeted again. It’s important to consider how we can help these people as well.
Intimate Partner Violence and Repeat Victims of Fraud
There are a surprising number of similarities between intimate partner violence and scams and fraud. It takes an intimate partner violence victim an average of seven to nine attempts before they successfully leave. The same can be true for scams and financial fraud. It may take a scam victim multiple attempts before they can actually leave.
If you want to support a scam victim who is repeatedly being victimized, it’s important to make a connection with them. Let them know that even though you think they’re being defrauded, you’re still there for them. And keep giving them information and working on them. They may not come to the conclusion that they’re being scammed today or tomorrow, but it’s important to have that connection and keep giving them the tools for when they’re ready to use them.
Ultimately, it’s really about giving [victims] the tools to make the best decisions for themselves.Rachel Gibson
One specific strategy Rachel often talks about is proving them wrong – using different tools to show the scammer is actually defrauding them. If it’s a romance scammer, for example, you can run their pictures through reverse image search. Google is one of the most powerful tools out there for this. Try Googling any piece of information you have. You can even Google phone numbers to see if it’s a legitimate number or a scam caller.
Support Victims and Prevent Scams
If you want to support a scam victim who is part of a particularly vulnerable population – an older adult or someone living with disabilities – there needs to be a balance. It’s important to figure out how to support them while still recognizing their own autonomy, but also recognize when strategies like Power of Attorney may be necessary. We should always do everything we can for the person before taking their autonomy away. It is an option, but it should only be done with care and when appropriate.
Another piece of scam victim support is being a safe person to report to. Will the person you want to support feel comfortable coming to you and telling you what happened? If they expect you to get angry or shame them for “falling for it,” they will not be willing to share and it will be much harder to support them.
It’s also a good idea to talk to all of your loved ones about what kind of things are out there. You can even start with your own experience – “Hey, I got this message and it turned out to be a scam, have you heard about this?” Rachel’s mother is very attuned to what’s going on with fraud and scams, and she is always calling Rachel and talking to her friends and family about new scams. Peer-to-peer engagement can be especially effective. Talk to your friends and your loved ones about scams you know are out there.
One thing that fraudsters … are banking on is that you’re not knowledgeable.Rachel Gibson
Destigmatize Victimhood for Better Scam Victim Support
One of the best things we can do to improve scam victim support is to destigmatize being a victim. Don’t call people stupid for falling for a scam, and don’t say it was their fault. The language we use is important. With these types of crimes, we put the responsibility on the victim. But we don’t blame the robbery victim for being robbed. When a crime happens, it’s always the perpetrator’s fault. We need to come at this from an empowerment lens and make it safer to report that you were a victim.
The more people who report, the more we can track what’s happening, the more that these crimes can go down and people can get the recourse that they deserve.Rachel Gibson
The more people that report and share their stories, the more other people feel empowered to report it as well. And the thing about reporting is that if law enforcement doesn’t know something’s happening or how often it’s happening, there’s not much they can do to stop it. That’s why Rachel encourages people to always report. But she adds a caveat – reporting doesn’t have to be to law enforcement. If you encounter a romance scam on an app run by Match Group, you could report it to Match Group. You could report it to the FTC, the Better Business Bureau, or your bank. There are a lot of really good options for victims that don’t necessarily involve a criminal justice response.
Scam Victim Support Takes a Team
Rachel’s job is to make sure victims have as many options as they want and can take as many as they want. To do this, they need to know what options are there. That makes good partnerships important. She encourages people doing scam victim support work to sit on multi-disciplinary teams with judges, bankers, law enforcement, religious organizations, community organizations, and others.
This kind of scam victim support also involves less obvious support people. Often the first people to hear that a crime is happening are people like tattoo artists and hairdressers. It’s important to make sure those people understand what a crime could be and how to support victims.
It’s also important to understand that to a scam victim, it may not be about the money so much as the emotional context. They might feel angry, or sad, or another emotion, or a combination. It’s important to recognize those feelings and how they affect that experience. Leading with a trauma-informed, person-first lens is very helpful.
Examples of Victim Support
In one situation, a scammer fraudulently changed the account number for some money the victim was going to send. The victim sent the money to the scammer and pretty quickly found out it didn’t go where it was supposed to. So they called their bank. The bank said they couldn’t do anything because the victim sent the money, so it wasn’t unauthorized. Rachel’s team is working on this very issue. Legally, there’s a difference between scams and fraud in terms of what banks can do. But that doesn’t mean the people at the bank can’t provide other help. The bank could have said, “We can’t help, but here’s some people who might be able to.”
In another situation, the victim was a victim of both trafficking and financial fraud. Rachel gave her all the resources, tools, and strategies she had, and didn’t know what else to do. So she called her colleague who worked at a bank. The colleague gave some suggestions, and then offered to take some of the victim’s non-personally identifiable information to a work group they were on and see what the work group said. The work group came back with almost two pages of resources, strategies, and tips. With this and other partnerships pooling resources for the victim, she was able to flee safely.
In the situation with the bank, the system failed the victim. Saying “the system failed” doesn’t necessarily mean the criminal justice system. It could be the financial system or a particular institution. With the trafficking victim, they succeeded in getting her to safety because people across multiple disciplines worked to support her.
Keep Supporting Victims
When it comes to victim support, the question to ask is, “What is the best thing for this person at this time?” It might not be law enforcement. It might not even be resources to escape the situation. They might just need a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. Especially with scams and fraud, there’s often an element of denial – people think it couldn’t happen to them.
Recently, Rachel got a call from a woman who had saved her contact information from seven years ago. Rachel had planted the seeds years ago, and it took that long for the woman to be ready for support. Plant the seeds, encourage them to think, and provide resources, but keep supporting them even if they stay.
It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but one of those days they’re going to come around.Rachel Gibson
Advocates often struggle because they want the satisfaction of knowing someone is now safe. But it can take seven to nine attempts, or more, for a victim to successfully leave. Many survivors Rachel has worked with have made decisions Rachel wouldn’t make for herself. But they’re experts in their own lives and we have to be okay with that. Scam victim support can’t ensure that someone is safe. All we can do is let them know resources are out there and give information to help victims make their own decisions.
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