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The Emotional Impact of Fraud and Scams

It is a helpless feeling when you have been, or someone you care about has been scammed. The damage has been done and it often feels like there is nothing you can do. Most of the time the scammer can’t be found and people do the best they can to protect themselves from further financial or legal harm but it doesn’t feel like much, or enough.  We have created this page on the emotional impact of fraud and scams to help people find their way through the difficult time after something like this happens to them.  Occasionally we also conduct a free workshop on this topic. Please get in touch with us if you are interested in this.

Scams come in many forms. we have heard of scams related to finding a job, romance (especially online relationships), people posing as IRS agents, calls about your home computer, and many more. Scammers are getting more and more creative, and it leaves all of us skeptical and on our guard. The people that do these scams are also very good at what they do, and sometimes very smart people are fooled.

Fraud and scams affect people emotionally and mentally, we hope this information here helps you you find ways to help yourself if you’ve been victimized, or what you can do to help a friend or family member who has been victimized.

First of all, these emotional effects are very common:

  • anxiety
  • shame
  • embarrassment
  • guilt
  • anger
  • depression
  • fear
  • loss of trust in others
  • loss of a sense of security
  • grief

If you yourself have been scammed, it will be helpful for you to find ways to take care of yourself – such as leaning on your support system of caring family and friends, taking time for self care activities, and not getting caught in negative or distorted thought patterns associated with the fraud/scam.  Here are some suggestions:

Accept the emotions.  Take another look at that list above.  Those are some ugly feelings, right?  When something like this happens, people often suffer through these type of emotions for a long time.  This is normal.  And it also doesn’t last forever – or it shouldn’t.  Many people find that once they stop trying to avoid feeling these things, stop trying to avoid feeling anything at all, and allow the emotions to happen…those emotions start to lose their power over you.  They will lose their intensity.

Find your best supportive family members and friends.  As you continue reading through this page, you’ll find that further down are a few suggestions we make for family members and friends and how to be supportive.  Look for your own people who do these things.  If you find yourself consistently feeling worse after spending time with someone but you can’t pinpoint why, please trust your gut with this and spend less time with that person.  Notice what happens with your thoughts and emotions after talking about this with certain people, and gravitate towards the ones who are helping you feel better, not worse.

Self care.  Self care takes many forms.  I think of self care as three types of things.  One of them is things I can do in a moment to relieve negative thoughts or emotions such as deep breathing, consciously relaxing my shoulders, or stepping out of a situation for a few moments. A second thing is engaging in regular activities that you enjoy.  I think of this as building resilience to be able to handle the stresses of life as they come.  A third thing is having good boundaries.  This means knowing your limits in what you do and say, as well as letting others know how you want to be treated.  You can read a lot more about self care in our handout here on this site by clicking here: Self Care Strategies.

Monitor and change your thinking.  How you are thinking is going to do at least two things:  it will influence your emotional state; and it will motivate some form of behavior.  If you are ruminating about what happened, and focused on negative self-talk, you are going to feel terrible.  Switch your thinking to the things you CAN do, forgive yourself because it is really true that we all make mistakes sometimes.  

Ask for help when you need it.  You may be telling yourself that you *should* be able to handle this, or that you are making more out of it than you should.  But in reality, we all need help sometimes.  Ask a trusted family member or friend for help.  And if you can’t get your thoughts or emotions back under control, find a counselor to talk to.  

The following five ideas are about how family and friends can help a person who has been scammed.  These can be helpful to both family and friends AND a person who has been the victim of fraud or a scam.  If you are someone who has been scammed, think about who in your support system can do this.  Know that you need these things.  And, know that you can do these things for yourself, too.

Listen and empathize without judgment.   Offering a shoulder to cry on is a no-brainer. But it’s important to listen and empathize without judging this person. He is probably already judging himself and beating himself up worse than you ever could, and it is a priceless gift to have someone to talk to who will not judge you for a mistake. People who have been scammed could always use someone to listen without judgment while they process what has happened and figure out how they go forward.

Don’t say…

“What were you thinking?”

“How could you be fooled by that?”

“I would never have fallen for that.”

“Everybody knows about that scam.”

Scammers play on people’s emotions, needs and fears. Sometimes we can be more easily fooled when the scammer presents an easy way to get something we want very badly, or a way to avoid something we are very afraid of. The way our brains tend to work in these situations makes it easier for a scammer to get what they want out of us. These statements only bring on even more embarrassment, shame and self-doubt.   This isn’t helpful!

Remind them this does not mean they are stupid. Scammers are extremely good at what they do. This is worth repeating!  Scammers are EXTREMELY good at what they do!  They use tactics based in human psychology to get people to miss important clues that something is not as it seems. One way they do this is to spend a lot of time talking with the person they want to scam to gain credibility, such as in romance or “sweetheart scams.” Another is to emphasize that the person must act quickly to avoid a problem (like the IRS scams) or to gain something (such as a job). Scammers often sound very friendly and concerned about the person they are trying to scam.

These are just a few examples of the skills scammers use to their advantage and it is important to encourage the person you care about to look at the situation realistically and determine what made her vulnerable, instead of concluding that she “must be stupid” if she fell for a scam.

Focus on what can be done. It is very common for someone who is in (or has been in) a very difficult situation to think endlessly about all the things he wishes he would have done differently. People get emotionally “stuck” in this sometimes, and for many reasons can’t get out of this unhelpful thought pattern.

Encourage him to focus his energy on the things he can control, not the things he can’t.   One thing that tends to help a person get “unstuck” is to take some kind of action to make things better, no matter how small it is. For instance, if the person you care about feels better by:

  • Getting educated on scams or psychological tactics scammers use to prevent getting scammed again, or
  • Getting involved with an organization that supports people who have been scammed, or
  • Reporting the crime

…then encourage him to do it. These are positive actions that help people heal. They are also focused on the future instead of the past, which can help shift a person’s attitude to see the situation as a lesson learned and a mistake instead of feeling like a complete failure in life.

Encourage her to forgive herself. I think this has been the hardest thing to achieve for clients I have worked with. The person who was scammed may feel like a complete failure in life after they realize what has happened. She loses sight of the fact that although the consequences may be harsh, it is still a mistake and not a statement about who she is as a person. We all make mistakes at times, and to encourage her to forgive herself can hopefully help her to find peace of mind again.