Advocating for Older Adults Who Have Experienced the Trauma of Financial Fraud

Laura Cook, Esq., Director of Training & Technical Assistance, National Center for Victims of Crime

Crimes affecting vulnerable populations, such as older adults, can pose unique challenges to those who advocate for such victims. When it comes to abuse of older adults, we know that approximately 90 percent of crimes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows; the statistics are similar for the financial exploitation of older adults. We often hear about crimes perpetrated by strangers, such as grandparent scams, in which a perpetrator impersonates the victim’s grandchild and asks for money for fabricated legal fees, medical bills, or the like. However, crimes perpetrated by a family member, friend, caregiver, romantic partner, or trusted advisor are also common and can be particularly devastating. 

Research has shown that financial fraud may cause psychological harm, including anxiety, depression, and stress. Financial crime can be traumatic, especially when it is committed by someone the victim trusts. Everyone has a unique trauma threshold – something that causes a trauma reaction in one person may not cause a trauma reaction in someone else. In addition, trauma is cumulative, because the effects of trauma compound when individuals experience more than one traumatic event. Older adults often experience a trauma reaction when dealing with financial exploitation by a known perpetrator. First, their trust has been violated; they may not only have lost money but also may have unexpectedly lost a relationship with the perpetrator. In addition, financial exploitation is often committed along with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, so it is possible that the individual may be experiencing multiple types of victimization. 

When assisting older victims of financial exploitation, it is important for advocates to take a victim-centered approach. Always assume that individuals have had a trauma history, and aim to minimize revictimization. Trauma can affect victims’ perceptions of situations, intent, and trust, so expect that it may take victims some time before they can fully understand that you are there to help them. Safety planning is important, and advocates should consider financial safety, as well as physical and psychological safety, as victims cannot fully recover until they feel safe. It is also important to create opportunities for victims to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. Always speak directly to older adults – assumptions that they lack capacity are not victim-centered. Even when there are guardianships or conservatorships in place, ensure that the victim is included in conversations. Lastly, a good general practice is to work with victims of financial exploitation in the same way that you would approach a victim of any other type of crime.

The National Center for Victims of Crime is a proud partner of the Cybercrime Support Network (CSN). To find out more about the National Center, you can follow it on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The National Center also established a Facebook group to assist advocates during the coronavirus pandemic, Crime Victims Community in COVID-19.