How Does Fraud Impact Emotional Well-Being?

Financial exploitation can result in significant distress for victims.

Posted Jan 03, 2021

 Ned Horton  FreeImages
Emotional Distress and Fraud
Source: Ned Horton FreeImages

The impacts of fraud and financial exploitation on seniors reach far beyond finances. Non-economic costs can include psychological, behavioral, and physical symptoms that are just as important to address as the initial financial exploitation. 

What Is Financial Exploitation, and How Does It Happen?

Financial exploitation is a form of elder abuse that involves the illegal, unauthorized, or improper use of a vulnerable adult’s resources for the perpetrator’s personal gain. While anyone can fall victim to financial exploitation, seniors are some of the most common victims, and I witness its effects all too often in my practice as a geropsychologist. 

Unfortunately, there is an almost endless number of ways by which someone can financially exploit an older adult. Common types of financial exploitation include theft, fraud, forgery, the improper use of guardianship or power of attorney, and the use of coercion, deception, or false pretenses to surrender finances or property. Harassment, duress, or threats may also be used to coerce the victim. 

Electronic scams such as “phishing” emails and lottery or sweepstake scams are some of the most well-known forms of financial exploitation designed to target seniors. However, more covert forms of exploitation involving real estate, contractors, mortgages, investments, insurance, and even romantic or familial relationships are just as pervasive. 

Perpetrators often attempt to build a relationship with the victim to establish trust, or they may take advantage of a relationship that already exists. Since seniors are especially vulnerable to loneliness, isolation, and elevated trust levels, they can be an ideal target for this type of deception. When other risk factors like cognitive impairment, poor physical health, and a subsequent need for daily assistance come into play, an older adult’s vulnerability to these acts, as well as their risk of experiencing serious non-economic impacts as a result of it, only amplifies.

The Non-Economic Impacts of Fraud and Financial Exploitation

Financial exploitation is one of the most common types of elder abuse, with numbers rising at staggering rates. Despite this, the devastating effects of this form of exploitation, outside of the expected financial impacts, remain little understood by the general public.

Being financially exploited can be a truly traumatic experience for an older adult, and seniors who fall victim to fraud and financial exploitation often experience a range of significant mental health symptoms as a result of it, including:

These mental health impacts are often accompanied by or expressed as intense emotions such as anger, rage, worry, hopelessness, despair, shock, betrayal, self-blame, shame, bitterness, despair, and lack of confidence. When experienced for a prolonged period of time, these feelings can have destructive impacts on all areas of a senior’s life and should be addressed.

Stress has been shown to directly impact one’s physical health, especially in individuals with pre-existing conditions. From poor sleep and pain to lower subjective health, it’s clear that financial exploitation, like other forms of abuse, threatens not only the mind but also the body. 

A senior’s feelings of betrayal, bitterness, and shame can also translate into changes in attitudes, which in turn impact their relationships. They may be less trusting of people in general, but more specifically friends, family members, and institutions. This distrust leads to isolation and a loss of relationships, which in turn leads to a lower quality of life. 

Additional feelings of self-doubt and an inability to plan for the future can leave a senior feeling lost, stagnant, and powerless. In the most severe cases of financial exploitation, a senior can experience significant debt, tax burdens, and even homelessness, further compounding these psychological impacts. While most younger people could expect to eventually recover from these impacts, older adults have different time horizons, so any effects will have a greater sense of permanency for them.

Financial abuse and fraud can also impact the finances and emotional well-being of future generations, whether it’s due to family members taking care of the exploited senior’s damaged finances, a depletion of assets to be eventually passed down to loved ones, or the emotional burden that loved ones carry.

Psychologists can help fraud victims with the non-economic costs of fraud by addressing the often severe psychological distress that results from victimization.