False Victimization: What to Do When a Neighbor Accuses You of a Crime You Didn’t Commit

The Neighbor in the Window

Jenn Lyon in the Lifetime movie "The Neighbor in the Window"

By Adam Janos

Every year, the FBI determines that thousands of violent crimes reported nationwide were “unfounded” — that is to say, false.

With many falsely reported crimes, the motivations are typically straightforward (e.g. to make an insurance claim on a robbery that never occurred). But some cases aren’t always so clear-cut.

Lifetime spoke with Dr. Ryan Hall, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Central Florida who has written and testified extensively about false victimization syndrome, why people report crimes that never happened and what to do if you’re falsely fingered as a perpetrator.

The Lifetime movie Neighbor in the Window is about a woman who is falsely accused of crimes by an obsessed neighbor. Do false criminal accusations often stem from obsessive relationships?

Sometimes. And sometimes it can be a totally random stranger. Some people just want attention. Others just feel they’ve been slighted and they want vindication or justification, and even if they feel that the slight was for something different, they feel that by making this allegation that, in some way, justice has been done, even if it’s a false allegation. People will play mental gymnastics to justify their actions.

When there’s stalking and a close relationship, a lot of times you’ll see aspects of borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality or a combination of all three.

Why are people with those personality disorders more likely to level false allegations?

Because people with certain personality disorders won’t have the most advanced coping mechanisms. Something will happen and they’ll perceive something minor as a slight or an abandonment.

What kind of thing? Does this happen gradually or all at once?

Oftentimes it’s quick. Not always, but usually, it’s something quick. Usually, there’s some event, and again, usually it’s small and trivial and only significant to the [false accuser].

There can be a lot of different triggering events. [For example,] “You went to a concert with so-and-so and I wasn’t invited. I thought I was your best friend.”

As a forensic psychiatrist, do you have any tricks for spotting the difference between an accuser who is “victim playing” versus a genuine victim?

There’s no foolproof way. Probably the best way is to get a history: look if there’re patterns, look to see if it’s ever been reported that similar things have happened in the past. Is what’s being said actually fitting together Sometimes, the pieces just don’t fit together right.

If you’re looking at the alleged victim’s history of complaints to ascertain his/her credibility, doesn’t that leave real victims who have been victimized repeatedly vulnerable to being incorrectly disregarded?

Well, that’s when you have to try to look at the other factors involved. If it’s a pattern where this is the fourth time a professor has touched someone inappropriately, you start to get a sense. If this is someone who has fought with every neighbor in the community, you start to wonder.

But part of what makes this very hard as a forensic psychiatrist is that I am not the keeper of truth. My crystal ball is not perfect, and short of somebody outright confessing, it’s very hard to know what happened and why.

What about the falsely accused? Do they behave differently than the credibly accused?

No, because people respond differently to stress. Just as everybody grieves differently. When people are falsely accused what they say may sound very similar to someone trying to deflect that really was involved.

So if you get a lawyer: Are you trying to resolve the issue and prove your innocence? Or are you lawyering up to try to get away with it?

Are there any demographic commonalities between false accusers? Groups of people more likely to partake in “false victimization”?

Not that I’m aware of. You’ve got to take it on a case-by-case basis — anybody can do it. There’s not a clear, consistent signal. This is something based on motivations you can see it at every economic level, race, gender and sexuality.

What should someone do should they find themselves accused of a crime they didn’t commit?

There may be multiple ways to approach that. Try to get ahead of it. Try to document. Try not to be alone with the person if you have concerns that this is occurring — always have somebody else with you or talk with them in public places.

And if accusations have actually been filed, get a lawyer. There may be times that people are worried that these actions may make them look guilty, but better to have somebody who objectively is a little removed and understands the law and how the process works.

Don’t try to save the person. Don’t try to save the relationship. Don’t think, “If I go talk to them one-on-one we’ll work all this out,” because that just often makes things worse.