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  • Writer's pictureSAFE

The Human Costs of Elder Fraud

According to the FTC, in 2021 alone, older Americans reported more than $6.1 billion in financial loss due to fraud. While staggering, this sum may be just a tiny fraction of the true monetary costs. Among other independent reports, the National Council on Aging cites a TrueLink Report that found the actual losses could be as high as $36 billion per year.

But financial loss is only part of the story. Fraud victims suffer immeasurable human costs as well. And these costs often manifest in ways that are seldom discussed in law enforcement circles and underappreciated by the general public. According to Stacey Wood, a Molly Mason Jones Professor of Psychology at Scripps College, most fraud is actually committed by someone the victim knows – often a family member – creating emotional tension and deepening the pain of the loss. This in turn can lead to feelings of anxiety, a loss of trust in others, and depression. Depending on the nature of the fraudulent scheme, there can be additional impacts. Take for example scams in which the perpetrator pretends to be a potential romantic partner or new friend. In these scenarios victims can often develop genuine feelings, and even love, for the person who is defrauding them. So once the true nature of the fraud is revealed, victims don’t just suffer monetary loss but also endure the additional burden of losing a person they considered a romantic partner or valued friend.

The emotional damage from becoming a victim of fraud has serious long-term ramifications as well. In a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health, a group of researchers found that fraud victims can suffer “major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, lower subjective health ratings, and increased functional somatic complaints.” The study also found that “financial abuse is associated with premature mortality and greater hospitalization.” These are very serious issues, and they go far beyond mere monetary loss.

There is also a question of stigma. The vast majority of elder fraud cases go unreported, and law enforcement professionals have long speculated that victims hesitate to report such crimes at least partly because of embarrassment or fear. According to a briefing by the National Center on Law and Elder Rights, many older adults fear that if they admit they’ve been duped by a scammer, they could end up in a nursing home or lose control of their finances.

Victim stigma is a real issue, and we will cover it more in future posts. For now, it is worth it for us to acknowledge the human cost of fraud, and look past the headline numbers and to see the impacts on the people we love and care about.


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