Authorities Agree: Fraudsters Win When Their Victims Point the Fingers of Blame at Themselves

by Benjamin Widlanski and Meaghan Goldstein | November 2019
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Victims of crimes often blame themselves. This is true across the entire scope of criminal conduct; whether someone is the victim of a random act of violence, the target of an elaborate robbery, or the deceived investor in a fraudulent scheme, one of the first thoughts victims often have is “I should have seen this coming.” The United States Attorney’s Office has catalogued this phenomenon.1

This reaction is entirely normal and natural, but unfortunately, it can cause people to re-victimize themselves. In the midst of a financial injury, victims often criticize themselves for “letting it happen.” The emotional results can be devastating: two thirds of fraud victims report severe stress, depression, anxiety, or difficulty sleeping after suffering from a crime.2 Worse, blame and shame can prevent victims from assisting law enforcement or their attorneys in securing justice because victims may feel embarrassed that they “fell for it” or think they “should have known better,” and they may not feel they deserve help.3

If you have suffered a similar crime, there is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. The most important thing you can do right away is speak out. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and recovery attorneys have all seen far too many victims blame themselves, and those professionals all say the same thing: criminals choose their victims, not the other way around.

Nowhere is this truer than in the context of financial frauds. Criminals carrying out financial frauds often target specific groups of people, including children and senior citizens who have particular vulnerabilities, and manipulate those vulnerabilities to their criminal advantage. Right now, 39% of Federal Trade Commission fraud complaints are from victims over the age of 604 who, through no fault of their own, may feel less confident in identifying scams—particularly when scams are supposedly linked to retirement planning or technology. Likewise, more than 1,000,000 children were victims of identity theft in 2017, and more than two thirds of those children were under age seven.5 Surely nobody would blame a child for being the victim of a crime, and all victims deserve that same validation and support.

If you have been victimized in a financial fraud and feel like you are alone, you are not. In 2018, more than 1,400,000 people nationwide reported some sort of fraud to the Federal Trade Commission.6 That is 1,400,000 people across the country who have been victimized by criminals—not 1,400,000 people who “should have known better.”

One victim of a Ponzi scheme, Howard, described to us how he blamed himself for not realizing that an investment he made was a fraud: “I consider myself financially savvy, comfortable with technology and investing. I’m not someone you would think of as the stereotype who is likely to fall for a fraud. But when I was presented with an investment opportunity that paid off well at first, I kept putting in more money and now with hindsight, I can see exactly where I should have known better. There were red flags, but I didn’t see them at the time.” Like many people, Howard had expenses to meet: he was running a small business, supporting a family, trying to save for his child’s college tuition. The criminal who defrauded him knew that the promise of a good investment was powerful bait for victims. Luckily, Howard did not let this blame stop him from speaking out, and he participated in the investigation and prosecution of his fraudster, who is currently in prison for his crimes.

So how do you fight back? Speak out! Seek help from law enforcement and an attorney. Don’t be angry at yourself; be angry at the fraudster. Grab a note pad and start writing down details. Tell law enforcement and your attorney about every interaction you ever had with the fraudster or anyone connected with the fraudster. Search your emails, text messages, and phone records for communications you had with the fraudster; go through your documents, find any paperwork the fraudster gave you and any financial records that show investments you made, money that was taken from you, or other activity related to the fraud.

Most importantly, seek support. There are victims’ assistance groups for all variety of crimes, including financial frauds. The National Center for Victims of Crime has a Financial Crime Resource Center available to victims of frauds, with resources ranging from phone numbers for support networks and educational guides, to practical checklists to help victims navigate life after a fraud.7

Criminals are counting on their victims’ silence. Don’t be silent. Find your voice. And the most important thing to remember is: it is not your fault.
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1 See, e.g., United States Department of Justice, Western District of Washington, Financial Fraud Crime Victims, https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdwa/victim-witness/victim-info/financial-fraud (last visited Nov. 13, 2019) (describing the emotional impact of fraud on victims, including a pervasive feeling of self-blame).
2 Applied Research & Consulting Non-Traditional Costs of Financial Fraud at 19 (2015), https://www.finrafoundation.org/sites/finrafoundation/files/nontraditional-costs-financial-fraud_0_0_0.pdf (last visited Nov. 13, 2019).
3 See, e.g., United States Senate Special Committee on Aging, Fighting Fraud: Senate Aging Committee Identifies Top 10 Scams Targeting Our Nation’s Seniors at 3 (2018), https://www.aging.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Fraud%20Book%202018%20FINAL.pdf (last visited Nov. 13, 2019).
4 Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book at 13 (2018), https://loadtest.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/reports/consumer-sentinel-network-data-book-2018/consumer_sentinel_network_data_book_2018_0.pdf (last visited Nov. 13, 2019).
5 Kelli B. Grant, CNBC Investor Toolkit, Identity Theft Isn’t Just an Adult Problem. Kids are Victims, Too, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/24/child-identity-theft-is-a-growing-and-expensive-problem.html (Apr. 24, 2018).
6 Consumer Affairs, 2019 Identity Theft Statistics, https://www.consumeraffairs.com/finance/identity-theft-statistics.html (last visited Nov. 13, 2019); see also Federal Trade Commission, FTC Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, Fraud Reports (2019), available online at https://public.tableau.com/profile/federal.trade.commission#!/vizhome/FraudReports/FraudFacts.
7 National Center for Victims of Crimes, Financial Fraud Resources, https://victimsofcrime.org/our-programs/financial-crime-resource-center/fraud-resources (last visited Nov. 13, 2019).

Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton

Ben Widlanski
Ben Widlanski is a partner at KTT who focuses on high-stakes commercial litigation, class actions, and Ponzi scheme and financial fraud recoveries. Prior to his time at KTT, Ben was an assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of Florida, where he litigated, prosecuted, and investigated hundreds of federal criminal actions. Ben is also a former United States Army officer, and a graduate of Columbia University and Columbia Law School.
bwidlanski@kttlaw.com​

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