Scam Victims Can Become Powerful Activists But Many Should Not Try To Help Others
The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Victims of Crime Noted:
Long after the physical wounds have healed, many crime victims continue to feel overwhelmed by the psychic pain of loss, powerlessness, low self-esteem, isolation, fear, and rage feelings that often are shared by their family and friends, as well as by the extended community.
From the ashes of the crime, victims and their families are often struggling to rebuild their own lives.
Victim As Activist
Through community activism, many individuals have transformed their pain into power, helping change society, and healing themselves in the process. SCARS’ own history is based upon this principle.
Moving from the personal to the activist role, many work to correct causes of crime that are systemic, such as internet crimes and other forms of financial fraud; to hold those who commit crimes accountable, and to enact victim-sensitive reforms and programs. As the crime victims’ movement enters its fifth decade, advocates should look for ways to nurture victims’ desires to help others by providing educational and organizational opportunities for community action. This is at the core of the SCARS Mission.
Without intervention, victims can become chronically dysfunctional and afraid to venture out in their life, unable to work productively, alienated from neighbors and friends, distrustful of police and courts, and overly dependent on social services. Their withdrawal from life hurts their families and weakens the fabric of the community.
Individual counseling and practical assistance help people deal with the psychological aftermath of crime and reconstruct a sense of equilibrium. When crime victims move from their personal experiences to a broader social analysis and to activism, they can also aid their own recovery from the trauma of victimization. Recognizing or addressing the social conditions that lead to crime and victimization is important. Helping other victims, working to change laws, or mobilizing crime prevention initiatives can help some victims and survivors regain a sense of control and channel their fear and rage into efforts for reform.
The history of grassroots efforts in other movements shows that community activism can be a powerful catalyst for social change.
Individual stakeholders, such as those whose lives were directly affected by a specific type of crime have brought about landmark reforms. The movements for civil rights, elder rights, welfare, environmental protection, and AIDS research and treatment have been spearheaded by those directly affected by the issues. Like crime victim activism, each of these movements arose from victimizing conditions of neglect, persecution, or marginalization; and the involvement of “victimized” individuals legitimized the cause.
Being A Victim
A crucial step toward activism may be the individual’s self-identification as a member of a group victimized by particular social conditions. Yet within the crime victims’ and battered women’s movements, the “victim” label remains controversial. Some believe it is a stigmatizing label that hinders recovery and reinforces society’s perception of victims as helpless, hopeless, and dependent. Others see it as an empowering identification that promotes connection with others and spurs community involvement.
SCARS prefers the term “Survivor” for those that have moved past the initial stage of discovery and into the process of recovery. Unfortunately, the term Victim lingers and is used to help those victimized to find the information they need.
Concerns Regarding Victim Activism
Though beneficial for many, becoming a victim activist is not a required step in trauma recovery and may be very much a problem for many.
Because people recover in different ways and have different needs, activism and community action are not appropriate for all crime victims.
The individual’s personality and history of victimization may play a role in determining whether this involvement will be helpful to recovery, while the availability of emotional and financial supports may be a big factor in determining whether the victim has the time and energy to spend on activist issues. Some victims of crime, though able to lead normal lives, may never feel prepared to deal with the pain of others (be lacking empathy) or the frustrations of advocacy efforts.
Being a victim may not be enough by itself to lead to successful activism; there is real evidence that victims who become active in community efforts are likely to have been activists before the crime. More importantly, those that are emotionally stable enough to become activist are also best able to recover from the experience. Those that remain in denial, anger, and rage, are least able to become successful activists, and may, in fact, be very harmful to other victims and their recovery.
In the absence of clear criteria for when activism is likely to benefit a traumatized individual, a victim’s own interest and desire to participate should be the determining factor. Rather than prescribing activism as a necessary part of the recovery process, professionals can provide people with opportunities for action, and support those who choose to get involved.
Criteria That Should Exclude Victims From Activism:
- Obsessive need for justice – to make sure that criminal pay for their crimes
- Focus only on specific elements of process that may serve no real purpose or not be effective
- Belief in their own knowledge or expertise in crime and criminal methods with no real training or experience
- A desperate need to save others
- The belief that other professionals or advocates are doing nothing to help
- Being unwilling to explore other approaches created by other professional advocates
- Being unwilling to support existing activism organizations, believing they have to do it alone and by themselves
- Be driven by rage or anger in their activist decisions
- Wanting to take revenge or obtain vengeance
- Very new victims feeling they must do something, anything, to change things before they have even fully recognized their own situation
These are all reasons why crime victims that feel these should not become involved in activism, but instead, address these issues through counseling or professional care before becoming involved.
Timing is also an important consideration in activism and community involvement. Advocating for legislative reform or helping others before coming to terms with their own trauma do impede many victims’ recovery, and can derail it or even prevent it. Lebowitz,
One study noted that what they call the third stage of trauma recovery-reconnecting with others-should not be attempted until the earlier steps of achieving a sense of safety and exploring and integrating the traumatic event have been achieved. Unless they have reached this stage, victims may be unable to cope with other people’s trauma on top of their own. Listening to others’ crime stories may exacerbate fears and bring back disturbing, even overwhelming, memories of their own experiences, thereby retraumatizing them.
Research on MADD’s Victim Impact Panels has shown that the act of speaking out was beneficial for the overwhelming majority (87 percent) of participants; the few participants (3 percent) who felt they were harmed by it had become involved too close (recover) to the incident-they were still using coping strategies, such as denial, that conflicted with telling their stories publicly. This suggests that victims who invest themselves in advocacy efforts too soon are taking on more than they are ready to handle. If individual change is difficult, societal change is even harder, especially in the face of their greater challenges. To avoid these pitfalls, activism generally should be encouraged later rather than earlier in the recovery process.
In the SCARS recovery process, we attempt to help victims recognize their capacity to help others while discouraging activism until they are ready for it. Once we see stability in victims and a sincere desire (as opposed to a manic desire) to help others, we provide substantial moderated opportunities to help others.
Feelings Of Exploitation
Certain types of activism may cause victims to feel exploited, potentially revictimizing them and setting back their recovery.
For example, some victims who have spoken out that they feel that they have been taken advantage of that their messages were misrepresented or their words cut or edited to alter their meaning. In an attempt to make a story more compelling, some journalists recast victim identities, portraying them as powerless and pitiable rather than empowered and brave (Dr. Phil?).
As a result, this has made many victims feel embarrassed or betrayed and made them less likely to speak out in the future. To avoid revictimization and to appropriately access the power of the media, victim activists need to understand how the media works – for example, that their page-one story may fade completely from the news a day later. Victim services organizations (such as SCARS) can provide training for crime victim activists as to what they might expect from working with the media. And the news media need to become sensitive to the risk of revictimization as well as the value of victim activism.
A good example of this is the SCARS relationship with many media organizations, such as National Geographic. Recently, SCARS aided National Geographic in the development of episodes about scams, scammers, and scam victims. This included helping several victims prepare for interviews and monitoring the National Geographic TV crew in their interactions with these survivors. The scam survivors’ interviews reported to SCARS that this was a positive experience and that they felt better after it.
The Victim Label
Finally, some victims interested in activism may not feel comfortable getting involved through organizations that are labeled as “victim” activist or “victim” assistance, which is one reason why other community groups-religious institutions, community organizations, neighborhood and parent groups, and other formal and informal organizations should support crime prevention and activist efforts.
For this reason, the actual SCARS name is Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc., and we define ourselves as a crime victims’ assistance AND crime prevention organization. However, the problem always remains that these terms are critical in finding us through Google and many other platforms, so we are sensitive to the issues while having to continue the use of these terms.
Some individuals who already had ties with other groups may feel more comfortable taking action in familiar settings (such as AARP) within their support networ