Why Do Some Falsely Claim to Be Victims?

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Dayna Morales, a New Jersey waitress, made national news last month when she claimed she was left a hate-filled, anti-gay note instead of a tip. Last week, she came under fire when she was accused of faking the incident.

Morales has since been accused of making other false claims as well, including telling her friends and family she had brain cancer and claiming to have seen combat when she served in the military. Morales has been suspended from her job at the bistro while the restaurant completes its investigation into whether her story was a hoax.

Why would someone lie about being the victim of discrimination, assault or even a hate crime?

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The Morales story has strong parallels to the case of a Michigan woman, Sara Ylen. Ylen falsely accused an innocent man of sexually assaulting her in 2003, and he spent nearly a decade in prison before his conviction was overturned. Ylen had gone so far as to use makeup to add fake bruises on her body, as evidence of her claims. Ylen also said that she had cancer, though police who investigated her claims discovered that her doctors had never even diagnosed her with cancer. Ylen is currently on trial for lying about her sexual assault.

While the public may associate lying and deception with common criminals and petty crime, many people who make false reports have professional status, including high-profile careers and doctorate degrees.

New York City meteorologist Heidi Jones reported to police on Dec. 1, 2011, that a man had stalked and sexually assaulted her twice, once while she jogged in Central Park. Police investigated the matter thoroughly and even arrested a suspect before determining that her story was a lie.

Jones, a contributor to ABC News and “Good Morning America,” explained her motivation in court documents: “I made it up for attention. I have so much stress at work, with my personal life and with my family.” In September 2011 Jones pled guilty to making false reports, sentenced to probation, and required to perform 350 hours of community service.

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Even high-profile anti-crime crusaders have faked incidents and assaults. According to The New York Times, the leader and founder of the Guardian Angels, Curtis Sliwa, “admitted that six of his group’s early crime-fighting exploits were actually faked and former and present associates contend that even more of the group’s activities were publicity stunts. Mr. Sliwa said … that he manufactured six stunts, including a report of the rescue of a mugging victim substantiated by a group member displaying bruises he had actually received falling down in the subway.”

Sliwa’s motivation, he said, was to draw attention and sympathy to his social justice group. Morton Downey, Jr., the bombastic 1980s talk show host, also faked an attack on himself by racist skinheads in an attempt to boost his profile and his show’s lagging ratings.

Victim Credibility

There are several factors that help hoaxers get away with their false reports. One of them is that victims are given special status based on the simple — and usually true — assumption that they actually have been victimized. Most people who report insults and crimes against them are telling the truth. The vast majority of physical and sexual assaults, property crimes, auto thefts and so on are real and legitimate. Hoaxers exploit this fact by hiding their faked reports in a sea of genuine ones.

Until the public and police become suspicious, hoaxers are given the benefit of the doubt, attention and assistance and treated with sympathy.

Hoaxers also often gain credibility through real or claimed membership in an oppressed or respected group. Our culture bestows respect and credibility on certain groups, such as mothers, members of the military, professionals, some minorities including the gay community, the elderly, clergy and others.

In many cases the claims themselves are often lacking significant details. They are plausible enough to be taken seriously by supporters and the public, but when police and experienced investigators examine their story, parts don’t add up.

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For example a person may claim she was knocked unconscious by her attacker but does not have a corresponding head injury. Often the hoaxer will stick by their story until the end, refusing to admit that they lied even in the face of refuting evidence. Those who make false reports often have a history of legal troubles and may have had brushes with the law or previous arrests.

Hoax Narrative Credibility

In his book “Crying Wolf: Hate Crime Hoaxes in America,” researcher Laird Wilcox discusses common traits that suggest that a claim may be a hoax, including an “incident that can’t be corroborated with reasonable evidence or disinterested witnesses or is accompanied by an account which contains inconsistencies, or when the alleged victim suddenly refuses to talk to police, as well as an incident that occurs just when it’s ‘needed’ to promote awareness or sensitivity” to racism, discrimination, or bigotry.

The accusations are often consciously or unconsciously crafted to fit a popular image or caricature of the assailant, how he or she would be expected to act or look. Sometimes these narratives are taken from popular culture, such as television shows and films, with false victims describing what they imagine an assault would look like.

For example last month a Texas woman called 911 from the trunk of her car, telling police that she had been abducted at gunpoint and sexually assaulted by a tattooed black man.

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Police searched desperately for the woman and eventually discovered that she had made the call from a McDonald’s restaurant, and surveillance video showed she had been safe all along. She admitted making up the story, and her friends suggested her hoax had been inspired by a Hollywood thriller titled “The Call,” about an abducted woman who calls police from the trunk of her car.

In her book “The Color of Crime,” Katheryn Russell, a professor of law and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at University of Florida notes that many hoaxes include the iconic Criminal Black Man, whose “image, generated by television, newspapers, radio, and American lore, translates into menacing caricature…. The fact that so many White-on-Black hoaxes are successful indicates society’s readiness to accept the image of Blacks as criminals.”

Indeed it is no coincidence that Susan Smith, the woman who drowned her children in a South Carolina lake, claimed that a black man had taken them, or that Jennifer Wilbanks, the infamous “Runaway Bride,” said in 2005 after getting cold feet before her wedding that she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a Hispanic man.

False report claims typically fit widely accepted cultural narratives, such as a gay waitress being the victim of homophobic slurs, or a young black woman being targeted by racists, or a young white woman being attacked by a black man. Many false reports are committed as a way to bring attention to legitimate social problems such as racism, sexual harassment, sexual assault and hate crimes. By adopting the public image of a victim and a social justice crusader, the hoaxer not only enjoys the sympathy and public support of others who support their cause, but also the attention. By implicitly aligning the false claims with a larger, valid social issue, the hoaxers discourage a close examination of their claims.

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Those who are suspicious may be reluctant to question the victim’s claims out of fear of the perception of “blaming the victim” or somehow attempting to discredit a worthy social cause. Who wants to challenge someone speaking out against an important social injustice like racism, rape or a hate crime?

Yet asking for evidence is not the same as doubting the victim. Instead it is appropriate investigative procedure to fully investigate a claim. When police determine that a false report has been made, it is usually in the course of a thorough investigation of the claim — in other words the deception is uncovered because the claim was taken seriously and fully investigated.

When these false reports are eventually exposed, it’s not uncommon for the alleged victim’s supporters to justify the hoax by saying that it was done for a greater good, and that it doesn’t matter whether the specific incident actually happened, because it represents many undoubtedly true and valid similar events. Police who diligently spend dozens or hundreds of hours — not to mention thousands of taxpayer dollars — on a lie understandably do not feel the same way. And, of course, the time and effort spent on false victims is time that could have been devoted to helping real victims or real crimes.

 

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