Scam victims don't just get hit in the wallet, their mental health also suffers

The hidden scars victims suffer and the impact on their mental state can be just as damaging. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - When Grace (not her real name), 34, met a German-born national on dating app Tinder last February, she found him fun, intelligent and always willing to listen to her.

Within six months, he had moved in with her and proposed, and she said "yes".

He asked Grace, a white-collar professional, for $60,000 so he could return to Germany to buy their future home.

She borrowed $20,000 from her parents, with the remaining $40,000 meant for her to take over when she relocated there.

But once her fiance left Singapore, he blocked her on all her social media accounts and became uncontactable.

Grace had fallen victim to a love scam.

Relating this anecdote of her client, Dr Annabelle Chow, principal clinical psychologist at Annabelle Psychology, said the guilt and shame clients feel after they have been scammed continues long after the incident.

She said: "More than half a year on, Grace is still rebuilding her self-confidence. As she wasn't sleeping well and was in a low mood, this affected her ability to retain information and she made mistakes at work."

When scams are mentioned, it is often the amount of money victims lose that comes to mind.

At a police media briefing on Monday (Feb 14), senior investigation officer Quek Kee Boon recounted an incident during which he saved a scam victim who had attempted suicide because she was distraught over losing her life savings of $100,000 to scammers.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Aileen Yap, who is from the Anti-Scam Division, said: "This is a life we saved, but we are not sure how many we did not save."

The police said on Wednesday that victims in Singapore lost at least $633.3 million to scams last year.

The hidden scars victims suffer and the impact on their mental state can be just as damaging, counsellors told The Sunday Times.

Chief well-being officer at the Singapore Counselling Centre, Mr John Lim, said many of the centre's clients who have been scammed become greatly confused and suffer emotional turmoil.

He said: "(The) psychological impact of scams often comes in the form of shame, which leads to low self-esteem and isolating behaviours, and helplessness.

"Having their money and pride taken away from them against their will, victims may begin to believe they have no control over their life and future."

Dr Chew Yat Peng, principal counsellor of O'Joy, which provides seniors with counselling services, said scams may also cause victims to experience difficulty sleeping or have nightmares.

Dr Chew added: "If the scams resulted in financial problems for the family or for the senior, such as no more retirement savings, seniors may also sink into depression with the risk of suicide. They might also develop high anxiety in the future when interacting with others."

Credit Counselling Singapore's general manager Tan Huey Min noted how victims can also chalk up debts if they borrow from financial institutions or individuals to pay scammers.

She said: "Sometimes, victims are tempted by greed or they want to recoup a loss. When they cannot repay their debt or are chased by creditors who call them daily or threaten to take legal action, it can be very distressing."

A sales administrator, who wanted to be known only as Del, 34, fell victim to a job scam and borrowed money from friends to take part in it.

On Jan 20, she lost about $49,000 within two hours and felt her life falling apart.

The single mother said she had accepted an offer to verify products from luxury brand Gucci because she wanted to earn extra income to provide for her son, 12. She has since made a police report.

The police confirmed a report was lodged and investigations are ongoing.

Ms Del said she has been in a daze since then.

She said: "When my son calls me, I don't even hear him sometimes. Just now, on my way home from work, I even passed the bus stop I was supposed to alight at.

"I keep thinking, what am I supposed to do to repay the money I owe people?"

"I don't even know if I am able to get through this month because all my money is gone."

While victims may feel rage, disappointment and regret, it is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes, said Singapore Counselling Centre's Mr Lim.

He said: "Give yourself the space to acknowledge your emotions and the reasons why you are feeling this way. Recognise that no amount of self-beating can change the past, and all we can do is to take the next best step forward."

Mr Asher Low, executive director of Limitless, a mental health charity, added: "Money can be earned back, relationships can be rebuilt. You are worth more than what was lost."

Helping victims heal

If someone you know has fallen victim to a scam, here are some ways you can support them through their recovery.

Be patient

Not all victims will accept that they have been scammed and may hope to get their money back.

Allow victims to process their feelings of anger and sadness before gently guiding them to accept what has happened.

Take a non-judgmental position

Empathise with their pain and allow victims to grieve. For some, the loss is not only monetary but also emotional, especially if they invested in building a relationship with the scammer.

Identify false beliefs

After a scam, victims may believe there is something fundamentally wrong with them, which caused them to be scammed. They may think they are stupid or unworthy of love. Remind them one mistake does not define them.

Focus on the positive

Having fallen prey to a scammer, victims will be more aware of the red flags to watch out for. Acknowledge they have become more resilient as a result of the experience.

Set goals

While victims have their own timeline for healing, it can be helpful to set goals to work towards, such as learning how to sleep better despite intrusive thoughts about the incident.

  • Sources: Annabelle Psychology, Limitless, Restart Counselling for Wellness, Singapore Counselling Centre

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