Our Collective Role to Change the Narrative on Blaming Fraud Victims

April 13, 2023

Scammers steal billions of dollars from millions of consumers every year. The impact on victims and their families is often both financially and emotionally devastating, especially for older adults.

Through research and anecdote, we know that our society uses language that places the blame on fraud victims for the crime they experienced. We say someone was ‘duped’, ‘swindled’, ‘tricked’ or ‘scammed’ when they experience fraud. When we use these words, it suggests that the victim was somehow responsible for the crime for having not known something or done something to avoid it.

Also, through research, we know that we don’t really mean to blame the victim. It’s just that we’ve become accustomed to using these words. Sadly, this has served to deprioritize fraud as a crime, so we see woefully little being done to combat it.

Fraud today is largely operated by transnational crime rings with money, employees, time, and a playbook. The playbook says to get the target into a heightened emotional state – “under the ether” – knowing that when we are there, it is hard to access logical thinking. Tactics that use fear or excitement often work because it is how our human brains function. Victims are not “cognitively impaired” or “too nice to hang up” the phone, or “gullible.” They are crime victims, and the perpetrators are criminals.

We need to change how we talk about fraud so we can change how we think about it. When we change how we think about it, we will demand that more be done to combat it. 

Flipping the Narrative

Let’s become intentional with the words we use and "flip the narrative" on the way we talk about fraud victims. Let’s focus on the crime and the criminal in a way that makes clear it is not the victim’s fault.

  • Say this: What did they say when they called you? What information did they ask for?
  • Don't say this: Why are you answering your phone? Why are you talking to these people?
  • Say this: This is not your fault.
  • Don't say this: I can't believe you fell for it.
  • Say this: Criminals are deceitful
  • Don't say this: Scammers are clever
  • Say this: She was deceived or coerced
  • Don't say this: She was duped or swindled
  • Say this: He experienced a scam
  • Don't say this: He was scammed
  • Say this: She fell victim to a scam
  • Don't say this: She fell for a scam
  • Say this: Learn the red flags of scams
  • Don't say this: Get smart about scams
  • Say this: Criminals
  • Don't say this: Fraudsters

Create Meaningful Change

Changing the victim blaming narrative isn't simply a game of semantics. The effect could be enormous:

  • Fraud victims will be treated with empathy and respect rather than scorn and humiliation. This will empower them to take action and report these crimes rather than hide in shame.
  • Families will have more empathy towards victims, reducing strain so often caused by blame, opening the door for more loving support. 
  • Police may take fraud more seriously as the crime that it is and investigate
  • Prosecutors might appreciate the magnitude of the impact of financial crimes on older adults and take on more cases.
  • Policymakers might acknowledge that fraud victims are crime victims, and they'd do more to address this epidemic.
  • Billions of dollars would stay in our economy.

Imagine a world where victims of these crimes feel supported, law enforcement investigates their cases, prosecutors send criminals to prison, and lawmakers seek to put an end to the multi-billion-dollar fraud industry.

We have the power to change the way we talk and think about victims of financial crimes, and to bring needed attention and action to end this scourge. Join us in this fight.


Knowledge gives you power over scams. The AARP Fraud Watch NetworkTM equips you with reliable, up-to-date insights, alerts and fraud prevention resources to help you spot and avoid scams and protect your loved ones. We even cover the latest scams in the news.

If you've been targeted by scams or fraud, you are not alone. Our trained fraud specialists provide support and guidance on what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. The AARP Fraud Helpline, 877-908-3360, is free and available to anyone. We also offer online support sessions for further emotional support.

Written by

Liz Buser

Liz Buser is a Senior Advisor on AARP’s Fraud Prevention Programs team. She previously focused on fraud awareness and other consumer issues as a member of AARP’s Program Design and Financial Resilience teams. Prior to joining AARP in 2011, Liz spent 7 years at the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and American Savings Education Council (ASEC), where she worked on retirement and savings education programs. Liz has her BA from American University and her MSc from University College London.