We seem to be fascinated by fraudsters, and recent documentaries prove this. The documentary landscape is populated with many fraud-centered stories, such as The Tinder Swindler, Fyre, The Con, Fake Heiress, The Inventor, and many others. Some have even been made into series, such as the story of Elisabeth Holmes in The Dropout, and the story of Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna. We just can’t get enough of it, and who can blame us? These stories are fascinating, entertaining, and engaging. We want to know how these fraudsters achieved their deceptive goals, and how they managed to fool so many people. And whilst part of this fascination may be down to consuming knowledge and wanting to know what to avoid, should such situations happen to us, there are parts that are deeply worrying. Some fraudsters have started to get our admiration and sympathy, while their victims received the blame for the victimization.
Should we ever paint victims as blameworthy?
I recently watched Inventing Anna, a Netflix series about the frauds committed by Anna Sorokin, also known as Anna Delvey, who stole large sums of money from various people and establishments. Whilst it is debatable to what degree Netflix followed and depicted the actual events, what alarmed me was their depiction of one of Anna’s victims, who is currently suing Netflix for this very reason. The series glamourized Anna’s fraudulent endeavors and depicted her as clever, interesting, and mysterious; someone who we wanted to figure out and understand. At the same time, one of the victims was painted as greedy, and blamed for selling their story and profiting from the experience.
Victims of fraud already suffer unfair treatment by the society and the authorities. They are often seen as gullible, stupid, and greedy. This paints fraud, which is a terrible and often cunning crime, as a victimless crime. Since there are no visible injuries, people assume that the victim emerges unscathed, but this is wrong. Fraud victims experience a lot of pain and anguish, often suffering long-term consequences as well. Apart from the financial loss, which can cause terrible financial troubles for the victim, e.g., financial hardship, homelessness, bad credit etc., there are unseen, psychological consequences caused by deception. These include self-blame, long-lasting anger, disappointment, and loss of trust in society and fellow humans. Deception erodes innocence and trust and lowers one’s empathy towards people. Once you are scammed, you will never see the world the same way. Victims suffer from hypervigilance, cynicism, and mistrust, avoiding certain activities they associate with victimization and closing themselves off as a way of protection. And on top of that, they have to deal with being seen as gullible or greedy by society. Whilst victims of other crimes have our sympathy, this is a luxury many fraud victims don’t get. Therefore, many fraud victims keep the victimization a secret.
Fraudsters are not your friends, even when they spend money on you
What people don’t understand is that deception fraudsters use is extremely harmful. Anna created a persona to prime her victims for fraud. This was also the Tinder Swindler’s modus operandi. Money taken from people is used to create a wealthy and generous persona, so that the con can continue, and victims don’t suspect anything when they are asked for money. Essentially, this is akin to a pyramid scheme, only the money is invested in building a persona.
Generosity extended to potential victims during fraud is not generosity or friendship, it is a type of grooming. And moreover, it is grooming with money gained by defrauding other people. In this grooming stage, fraudsters do favors for their victims or buy them elaborate gifts. But make no mistake, rather than being generous, they are using a specific persuasion technique to gain power over the victim. This not only builds trust, but also establishes expectations.
The false generosity and unsolicited gifts are how fraudsters slowly groom the intended victim to feel obliged to return the favor at some point. This is why we often feel uncomfortable when someone gives us something for free. Reciprocity is a social norm which is ingrained in us. Subconsciously we know that we need to reciprocate favors, because this is what decent people do. Those that don’t are seen as selfish and self-centered, and most people will reciprocate even when they don’t want to, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, e.g., being seen as selfish.
Scammers know this and use this persuasive psychological technique all the time, with much success. Typically, the longer they groom the victim and more money they invest in grooming and creating a persona, e.g., expensive clothes, expensive vehicles, expensive things etc., the bigger the payout is. But many people don’t understand that this is not true generosity, it is an elaborate scamming technique.
Thus, blaming the victim for accepting fraudster’s generosity is wrong. The victim was sold a believable lie. That is their only weakness. The gifts, and the false generosity are a part of a grooming stage. People that defraud others are not friends, they are criminals who use psychological manipulation. We can be fascinated by their techniques, even learn to avoid them, but fraudsters should not get our sympathy at the expense of their victims.
No justice for victims of fraud
Despite suffering psychological and financial consequences, fraud victims get little justice or attention after reporting the crime. Many are passed between agencies. Almost all crimes can be reported to police, but in most cases, fraud isn’t one of them. Finding the right avenue to report specific fraud to can be frustrating and confusing. Often, reporting fraud is handled by specific reporting agencies, such as Action Fraud in the UK, and State Consumer Protection Office or the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. After making the report, many fraud victims reach a dead end. There are usually no updates on the case, no information on whether any investigation will take place, no dedicated detective you can reach to find out how the case is going. Nothing but silence. This can be disheartening, especially as reporting is already low due to feelings of shame. Additionally, some of these agencies have received bad reputations for their unfair and cruel treatment of fraud victims.
Fraud is also rarely prosecuted. Only about 3% of all U.S. federal prosecutions are for white collar crimes. And when it is prosecuted, fraudsters typically get paltry sentences. For example, Anna Delvey was sentenced to 4 to 12 years in prison but was released after two years. This must be especially hurtful to the victims and businesses she defrauded, because she showed little remorse or guilt for her actions. In fact, Anna even stated that she doesn’t see anything wrong with what she has done; she doesn’t see it as a crime. Similarly, Tinder Swindler’s 15 month sentence was already lenient, but he ended up serving only 5 months for allegedly defrauding many women, totaling as much as $10 million.
Fraud can be difficult and complex to prosecute. It often crosses borders, so jurisdiction can be difficult to establish. For example, fraudsters commit fraud in several countries or from another country, which adds to the complexity of the crime. But low prosecution rates are also down to the fact that as a society, we see fraud as a victimless crime, especially when it happens to private individuals. But it is not. Many research studies, mine included (Dove 2018, Button, Lewis, and Tapley, 2014, Button, and Cross, 2017), outlined harmful effects of fraud, some of which included suicide, financial ruin, and severe psychological consequences, including impact to self-esteem. These consequences can be harder to recover from, than physical injuries, especially when victims are made to feel shame and are criticized when they speak up.
How we treat victims of fraud defines our society
Speaking about fraud victimization is vital. It helps to warn people of fraudulent schemes and manipulations and gives fraud victims that speak up about their experience a voice, and a little bit of their power back. But how we speak about fraud victimization matters. Glamourizing clever fraudsters normalizes fraud and makes it appear somewhat acceptable; criticizing victims does too. Fraud is a crime. But despite being found guilty of a serious crime, Anna’s lawyer said she is seen as a role model by many people, and he is probably right. But should we praise and look up to people who deceive and defraud others, and falsify documents to procure loans and overdrafts. After all, this hurts us all in the end. As a result, procedures become more arduous and complicated, people become more cynical and bitter, affecting how we trust and cooperate with each other. This may affect and limit future opportunities and growth.
When we sympathize with fraudsters, we are saying that some types of crimes are acceptable as long as the criminal is charismatic, well dressed, or smart. When we criticize fraud victims for falling for a scam or for speaking out, we are saying that some people deserve to be defrauded and that they should accept their fate. But ask yourself – why do you feel this way? If a charming and mysterious fraudster stole your parents’ life savings, would you still feel they deserved it for not being more vigilant or more careful? What about if the same fraudster befriended them, gave them gifts, took them out for dinners and then stole their pension? Would that make it OK? Would you blame your parents for accepting gifts and friendship or would you see them as victims of a conman that was good at deception and manipulation? Sometimes, fraud needs to strike close to home for us to realize that it is a dirty game, full of tricks and psychological manipulations.
The way we think about fraud and the way we punish fraud matters. An insensitive society, and paltry prison sentences ensures that fraud is seen as relatively risk-free and less morally wrong than other types of crimes, helping it flourish. Fraud is not a victimless crime. It’s also not a crime that affects only direct victims. We all pay for fraud through higher interest and insurance rates, or higher prices for goods and services. Therefore, instead of blaming victims of fraud and focusing on their behavior, we should be shaming fraudsters.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.