At one point in the new interactive theater piece “This Is Not a Scam!!”, a member of the ensemble cast delivers a poignant monologue about the relationship between older people and a quickly vanishing piece of technology: the landline phone.

“It’s your friend, you know,” she says. "I’ve had it for more than 60 years, and it’s always been reliable. If you’re used to dialing up your sister or your friend in Wyoming, it’s there. You just pick it up and do it. But these scammers have turned your friend into an enemy.”

The sentiment speaks to the experiences of many real people who have fallen victim to telephone scams. In the stories that Virginia Tech faculty and students collected to create the show, isolation was a common theme. Victims found themselves unable to trust their primary means of communication, or felt cut off from others who could help them due to their own feelings of shame or guilt.

That’s why the Virginia Tech faculty who created this research and theater project — Performances to Reduce Online Scams (PROS) — decided to use theater to reach out to their audience. The free performances will take place Feb. 23-28, with locations and times throughout the New River Valley.

“Theater is by definition a convening of people at the same place at the same time,” said Susanna Rinehart, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, who is co-directing the show with her colleague Mason Rosenthal, an instructor in the school. “For a circumstance that is so isolating, it’s hard to reach people in other ways because there are so many forces at work that mean people suffer in silence.”

Crucially, “This Is Not a Scam!!” is no ordinary play, where audience members are passive observers. Instead, the show is designed as a combination of performance and dialogue with the community.

“We are not lecturing. We aren’t giving a presentation,” said Katalin Parti, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and principal investigator on the project. "We don’t seek to establish a hierarchical relationship between the actors and the audience. We want to engage in a conversation with the audience.”

Susanna Rinehart explains a scene in a rehearsal space.
Susanna Rinehart, director of ‘This Is Not a Scam!!’, discusses the script at a workshop. Photo by Mary Crawford for Virginia Tech.

Scams and online crime, especially against older people, are a central focus of Parti’s research. Scammers target people aged 60 and older disproportionately; however, keeping these populations informed can be difficult. In conversations with retirement homes in the New River Valley, Parti often heard that no matter how much people want to raise awareness about these scams, there are few effective tools to channel information to the real victims.

“The world has moved on from wanting a brochure in an office,” said Pamela Teaster, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, director of the Center for Gerontology, and co-principal investigator on the project. “We wanted to figure out, based on the evidence, how to help them in a better way.”

While brainstorming ideas, Parti was inspired by interactive theater companies and the techniques of Theatre of the Oppressed, a method that uses theater to promote social change by giving spectators the opportunity to participate in the events happening onstage. Perhaps, she thought, an interactive play could reach the target audience of older adults in an active and engaging way.

Parti approached Rinehart with the idea, and the PROS project was born.

In the first part of the project, starting in the spring of 2021, Parti and Teaster conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups with Virginians aged 60 and older, learning how online and phone scams have affected them and collecting their stories.

“I wanted to know exactly how these scenarios happen,” said Parti. “How do the scammers approach the target population? What are the hooks? What are the important milestones of the stories? And what obstacles do people experience to reporting the scams?”

Their interviews uncovered a network of common themes and issues between these stories.

One problem they found is that it’s difficult for older people to reach out for guidance in the moment the scam is taking place. Most older adults lack tech-savvy support networks of people who can help them stay on guard against scams.

“Younger people have their friends to ask, ‘does that look legit to you?’ Older people don’t have that,” said Teaster. “And when they do find out it was a scam, a lot of times it’s after the fact.”

However, for Teaster, the biggest revelation from their research was that these crimes often go unreported because the victims blame themselves for failing to see through the ruse. They may be embarrassed to admit to law enforcement that they were tricked, or worry about the reaction of their loved ones—what if they hear that they fell for a scam and deem them unfit to control their own finances?

“Often the families react to it like, ’I can’t believe you did that! How could you have been so gullible?’ And that is just the wrong approach,” Teaster said. “Vulnerable people need somebody that they can talk to, who can say, ‘It’s okay. Everybody makes mistakes. We’re going to help you as much as we can.’”

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After the data collection phase, Parti and Teaster handed off the transcribed stories from the research interviews to Rinehart, who used them to create the script of the play. “This Is Not a Scam!!” recounts these real stories from the perspectives of those who lived through them, and reflects on the common elements between them.

One story comes from a man who received a call claiming (with a concerning amount of personal information to back it up) that his grandson was in jail. Another victim was informed of an erroneous $40,000 Amazon charge on his bank account, and was instructed to buy gift cards at different stores—a common technique for scammers to transfer money in a way that can’t be traced or refunded.

In some of the scenarios, the potential victims realize in time that they’re being scammed. In others, they don’t, and express a common sentiment as they tell their stories: I should have seen the signs. There were so many red flags—but the scammers hit them so close to home that they were too emotional to notice.

In between the rehearsed stories, there are moments where the performers turn and pose questions to the audience—so that, as Parti describes it, “the audience can own the stories” by contributing their own personal experience to the discussion.

Four people of varying ages stand back to back and smile while reading their scripts.
Members of the Virginia Tech community participate in a PROS script workshop in December 2022. Photo by Mary Crawford for Virginia Tech.

The script was refined at a series of workshops open to the community—led by Rinehart and Rosenthal—in late 2022, and now the production is finally ready for the public spotlight.

The casting of the play reflects the goals to engage audience members where they are. Instead of a cast of mostly students, like many Virginia Tech productions, the cast is a mix of faculty, students, and community members, with an age range spanning around 50 years. The wide range of experiences reflects how many different people are affected by these scams: the older people who are their target audience, as well as their children, grandchildren, and caregivers.

“For a senior audience, these stories belong to them,” said Rinehart. “It didn’t make as much sense to have 20-year-old actors performing those folks, so I wanted a mixed ensemble.”

The stories are close to the hearts of the cast members. While introducing themselves at the first rehearsal, Rinehart recalls, everyone had a personal story to tell about the topic—a reminder of how broadly these scams affect the population.

“Even if we are talking about scams against older individuals, these crimes are happening to every one of us,” Parti said. “So I hope that by showcasing this project at Virginia Tech, everyone has a takeaway from it—for example, students will see more clearly what is happening to their parents or grandparents or their community at home.”

After the first round of performances in the New River Valley, Parti, Teaster, and Rinehart hope to use their project as a basis for future education about online and phone scams, and perhaps even work with larger organizations to carry the performance and the message to a wider audience.

The PROS project is sponsored by an Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology major grant, along with the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and the Center for Gerontology.

Written by Mary Crawford