Kate Kleinert is active in her community. Now in her 60’s, she is a regional minister and cares for hospice dogs in her home, helping ease their path “over the rainbow bridge.” She spent many years in the workforce before leaving to provide full-time care to her husband Bernie, who died in 2009.
One day in the summer of 2020, while perusing her Facebook feed, Kate accepted a friend request from someone she didn’t know—despite never doing so before. Over some months, and despite her early disinterest in a romantic relationship, Kate fell in love with this man, Tony, who held himself out as a father of two young children who was working as a surgeon in Iraq on a United Nations contract.
Those kids reached out to Kate and started calling her mom. Those kids asked her to buy them gift cards so they could buy necessities, which was followed by “Tony” asking for gift cards, too. He promised he was good for it—he even gave Kate access to see the balance of his American bank account showing over $2 million. He sent Kate out looking for a home they could move into once they married, a home big enough for a family.
This story goes on. But tragically, there was no real surgeon, no real kids, and there was no happy ending. Kate lost $39,000—all she had from Bernie’s life insurance and her retirement savings.
There are a million stories like Kate’s. She suffered this experience not because she was socially isolated; not because she had age-related cognitive impairment; and not because she didn’t know better. Kate was intentionally targeted by a sophisticated criminal enterprise. These criminal organizations steal billions of dollars every year by knowing how to turn a fraud target into a fraud victim.
AARP’s Fraud Watch Network Helpline—operating in part out of King County, Washington—hears from fraud victims and family members every day. Victims often express a deep sense of shame, and many blame themselves for the experience.
Family and others around the victim often exacerbate this sense of shame either through direct blame or, more often, through attempted support that sounds like blame: “What were you thinking?” or “How could you have let this happen to you?” Or, in the case of relationship-based fraud, “How could you send money to a stranger?” But to the victims in these scams, their love interest is no stranger to them.
This blame is misdirected. The criminals behind the scams are to blame. Our tendency to use victim-blaming language (even if unwittingly) serves to minimize the crime—essentially giving fraud a pass. Victims often don’t report, and the criminal justice system deprioritizes these crimes.
In a meeting with the King County Elder Abuse Council this spring, AARP and the FINRA Investor Education Foundation urged participants to consider how they can reframe blame in the context of financial fraud.
Instead of this: “Why did you give him your money?” or “How could you fall for that?”
Say this: “It’s not your fault. Scammers are good at what they do; you are a victim of a crime.”
Over time, these changes can lead to significant impacts, among them:
- Victims no longer hide in shame, and instead report the crime.
- Families remain united despite a horrible fraud encounter by a family member.
- More law enforcement personnel pursue fraud as a crime and take reports – even investigate.
- Prosecutors take on more cases to seek justice for victims.
- Policymakers take meaningful action to end the multi-billion-dollar fraud industry.
Ultimately, the culture of victim blaming is less about the sentiment of blame than it is about the words we use and practices we embrace. As we recognize World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, let’s embrace this reality: it’s not the victim’s fault.
Contributors Kathy Stokes, Director of Fraud Prevention Programs with AARP, and Christine Kieffer, Senior Director of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, are co-authors of the forthcoming paper, “Blame and Shame in the Context of Financial Fraud: A Movement to Change Our Societal Response to a Rampant and Growing Crime.” Kate Kleinert, referenced above, is now a speaker in AARP’s Fraud Watch Network. For more information, research, and resources, visit www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork and www.finrafoundation.org/fraudfighter.
World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is June 15
Did you know that financial exploitation is one of the most common forms of elder abuse? Click on the World Elder Abuse Awareness Day Toolkit image to learn more.