Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why reporting scams can feel like being scammed twice

Being a victim of a scam is an unpleasant experience. When people realise that they have been scammed, feelings of shame and hurt can be overwhelming.  In fact, in one of the interviews I conducted with victims of scams, a victim told me that although she felt anger at the time it happened, afterwards this anger turned into feelings of shame and failure, a strong feeling that she cannot look after herself, that she is not competent enough… Of course, every scam and every person is different and therefore the experience is different for everyone.  Some people are able to shrug it off as an experience to learn from but for some, being scammed can be life changing.  This also vastly depends on how much you have lost.  It is easy to shrug off few pounds but not so easy if you lost your life savings to an investment scam.

There are many agencies that deal with victims of crime and although scams are criminal acts, they are not treated the same as some other criminal activities.  People are urged to report scams to the police or the relevant agencies and there is no shortage of agencies that you can contact if you have been a victim of a scam. Crimestoppers, ActionFraud, your local Trading standards, Office of Fair Trading and so on, and of course, the police themselves. These agencies are doing all they can, especially with the number of scams growing, but many victims feel they did not get any support at all.

Commissioned by the government, a large-scale study looking into the system of support for victims of fraud was done by the researchers at the University of Portsmouth. Large part of the study entailed interviewing victims themselves, in order to find out what they think of the help they receive.  Many victims have reported patchy service, little advice, especially when it comes to how not to become a victim again.  Of course there are plenty of warnings out there, not to respond to suspicious emails, not to open attachments from people we don’t know and not to send money to strangers… however humans are and always will be, curious by nature.  Office of Fair Trading report (2009) found that certain people engage in scams over and over, despite being good decision makers in other areas of their lives, so perhaps there is something else that drives people to ignore simple advice regarding scams.

Problem is not just the patchy victim support, perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that many scam victims never see justice or recoup their funds.  With any other crime, once you report it to the police, you expect the police to find the perpetrator and punish them accordingly.  Scams are different.  Government will only prosecute fraud that they deem is in the public interest, or in other words, large enough. Most scams fall under civil law, which means that the victim is left to find a way of getting their own justice by pursuing the matter in the civil court. Many cannot afford this even if they know their scammer and many scammers, therefore, go unpunished.

The study by the same researchers has also found that victims who get the most support are the ones who have been chosen to testify in court.  They are provided with an assigned case worker and are supported through the experience. Victims of identity fraud seem to also fare better than most victims,  due to the fact that banks have dedicated fraud departments dealing with the victim directly and most identity fraud victims get adequate advice and money they lost back relatively quickly.

For many other victims who have been unlucky enough to be scammed, there is a bleak outcome.  The burden of proof is on them rather than on the scammer and many have no money for legal advice and/or court fees for the case they may want to bring against their scammer.  Many of those interviewed for that study also reported not being given much advice on how not to become a victim of a scam again.  The reasons people engage in scams are complex.  Scams themselves are designed to evoke different reaction in people. It is important to try to understand the underlying reasons why people find any particular scam interesting, in order to help them avoid scams in the future.  So far, there is little support like this for victims of scams.  Although the authorities are investing more effort trying to understand different factors that underlie scams and people’s responses to them, apart from general advice given everywhere online, there is little else in form of advice that some victims can relate to.  For example, looking into different ways scammers motivate their victims or which personality characteristics may be influential in making someone more susceptible to certain scams, might prove to be an invaluable tool in educating potential or repeated victims how to change their behaviour.  At present there is not much research into these factors or resources to help most of the victims and this is perhaps why scammers can get away with murder.

Button, M., Tapley, J., & Lewis, C. (2013). The ‘fraud justice network’and the infra-structure of support for individual fraud victims in England and Wales.Criminology and Criminal Justice, 13(1), 37-61.

Lea, S., Fischer, P., & Evans, K. (2009). The psychology of scams: Provoking and committing errors of judgement. report for the Office of Fair Trading, available online at www. oft. gov. uk/shared_oft/reports/consumer_protection/oft1070. pdf.

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