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Victim Blaming Harms Us All

Hand holding in comfort, care in support...

By Christine Kieffer, Senior Director, Office of Investor Education, FINRA

Last month, financial columnist Charlotte Cowles detailed how she lost $50,000 to a financial scam. Charlotte’s story is both alarming and illuminating—and very powerful. And, sadly, she is not alone.

There likely are millions of scam stories like hers. Sophisticated criminal organizations steal billions of dollars every year by knowing how to turn a fraud target into a fraud victim.

The FINRA Foundation had the opportunity to speak with Charlotte in advance of the publication as she gathered research for a companion article. She shared with us that while the financial toll was significant, the emotional toll was equally impactful and possibly worse. She acknowledged feeling fear for her family, bewilderment over the complexity of the scheme, guilt over the financial loss, and shame that she did not disengage before it was too late—all at the same time. The scam occurred over a period of five hours; the emotional reverberations continue after nearly five months.

FINRA Foundation research demonstrates that the wounds inflicted by scams and fraud are frequently hidden from sight. Victims often express a deep sense of shame and blame. And as is playing out in the comments to Charlotte’s article, society blames them, too. Some commentors called for her to be fired, while others said they wanted to have empathy for Cowles but couldn’t muster it for someone who could fall for this scam. Still others hoped her husband would divorce her because of what happened. On social media, some users accused Cowles of making up the story entirely.

Victim-blaming language, even when used unwittingly, helps no one and harms everyone. In a 2022 report, Blame and Shame in the Context of Financial Fraud, the FINRA Foundation and AARP collaborated on a study of victim-blaming practices in an effort to demonstrate the detrimental impact and define strategies to transcend them. Individuals are less likely to speak up when they are targeted. Victims hide in shame and don’t report the crime. Family relationships suffer. Institutions lack data on the true extent of the problem. Resources that could be applied to combatting scams are redirected to other, more measurable societal problems. Potential solutions go unfunded. And more and more Americans are victimized by an increasing array of carefully orchestrated scams.

The FINRA Foundation’s work with AARP unearthed ample evidence that victim-blaming practices can shift for the better, that many instances are unintentional, and that redirecting our ire to the scammers and the criminals is a key to advancing the fight against fraud.

Charlotte is brave to use her platform as a journalist to bring these experiences into the light. Her openness has the power to help and heal many. She doesn’t deserve our blame. She deserves our empathy and our thanks for sharing her experience to help others.

It’s critical that individuals who think they have been a target or a victim of fraud report the crime as quickly as possible. Reporting any financial fraud, no matter how small, helps law enforcement, regulators and government agencies put a stop to the fraud, prevent harm to more consumers and pursue the criminals committing the fraud.

If you’ve been the victim of a financial fraud scheme, contact your local law enforcement office to file a police report. Also file an online complaint through the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

For investment-related schemes, file a complaint with FINRA, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and your state or provincial securities regulator—or with any one of these regulators.

Given how devastating financial frauds can be—and how important it is that regulators and law enforcement learn about scams in real time—it is crucial that people can come forward to report these crimes without fear of further victimization by blamers or shamers.