Here Melanie tells her mothers story (with permission)
My mother, Margaret, didn’t retire from her very successful academic career until she was nearly 70. She lectured in Drama in Education and English, produced plays, wrote books and articles, assessed colleges … among other things). It was the right time to quit, but she also needed all her time and energy to look after my stepfather, John, who was nearly 90, ill and failing. Her life then was filled with journeys to and from hospital appointments, battling with the NHS to get the best treatment for him and general day to day struggles. When, finally, he died, she was alone and frightened of not having enough money to live on.
Loss and bereavement John’s death not only left her alone. It also left her with an empty life. Very importantly, too, she felt she had no role, status or importance in her own right. Of course, this was her own perception which she herself very probably did not acknowledge in the fog of bereavement. Certainly she felt she had no future and nothing to look forward to. Having been a very energetic, vigorous, forward-looking and active woman, always with at least two big projects on at once, suddenly the days, weeks and months stretched ahead of her. She had given up her flock of St Kilda’s sheep, a huge and impressive garden, involvement in community arts projects and a lively social life, to care for John. She sold the large house in the country and, after a horrendous move involving considerable downsizing, getting rid of a lifetime’s acquisitions and having to rent for a time, she moved to a very much smaller house in the centre of York.
Once settled, Margaret threw herself into her new life – she went to concerts and the theatre, carried on singing in two choirs and continued to see old friends and make new ones. However, the whole process had taken its toll and her health had begun to fail.
Failing health and isolation
She had a series of serious health setbacks over the next few years – a broken ankle, which kept her in the house and out of circulation, followed by pulmonary embolisms in both lungs that were not correctly diagnosed for months, followed by shingles, and finally, she was found to have breast cancer. She had to give up the choirs and gradually, she lost touch with friends and acquaintances. She has recovered now, but, again, these years have taken their toll. She has memory problems and very little energy.
Becoming a chronic scam victim
During these difficult years, Margaret became the victim of scammers. Over the years, she has ‘invested’ thousands of pounds in prize draws, lottery scams and scam catalogue ordering (which promised to enter her into a prize draw if she ordered over a certain amount of goods from them). It isn’t worth working out precisely how much money was lost, but at its worst it amounted to somewhere between two and four thousand pounds per month. As I later found out, she had gone into the red with the bank on a few occasions, then cashed in all her savings and ISAs to pay off her overdrafts.
What kind of scams?
The mail could be broadly divided into four generic categories:
- ‘You are the winner’ of a lottery or prize draw letters, with certificates guaranteeing thousands of pounds of winnings waiting to be despatched. All Margaret had to do was to send a cheque to release the money and a large cheque would reach her very soon. She sent cheques for £10 or £20 – every day – but nothing came back apart from packages with ‘free gifts’ and ‘third prizes’. I got to hate the sight of those little white boxes containing cheap alarm clocks and watches, garish ornaments, gold pen sets, manicure sets and fairground jewellery.
- Letters from psychics and mystics, promising good fortune especially for her – on receipt of a cheque or donation. Luckily, Margaret was not taken in by these. But they kept coming.
- Letters from fake financial institutions and ‘Millionaires/winners clubs’, with chilling underlined sentences telling her to keep her exceptional good luck a secret because her family and friends would be envious and would not want her to have the wealth and fortune that was certainly waiting for her.
- Catalogues and parcels of products. The same names come up again and again in the stories I’ve read on the www.thinkjessica.com website: Vital Beauty, Best of…, The World of Treats, Biotonics and various ‘certified genuine’ jewellery retailers – and many more.
Signs of scamming
After a while, I could tell how ‘the problem’ was going by:
What she talked about when I spoke to her on the phone – being short of money, how the credit crunch and recession had had a terrible effect on her finances, how impossible her bills were, how much her new boiler had cost. I knew that in fact, her relatively comfortable income was guaranteed and unchanging from month to month: her various pensions, state pension and a guaranteed monthly amount from two discounted gift trust investments.
- The huge number of boxes and cardboard she wanted me to take to the tip for her when I visited
- Bizarre and tacky Christmas presents for the family each year – often duplicates of ones from the Christmas before. Any number of flans and boxes of biscuits from Belgium, bottles and jars of creams and tonics, vitamins and herbal remedies, ladies’ facial hair removers, mechanical gadgets and kitchen equipment, all with instructions in German or French. All from ‘good firms’. All from scammers.
- The increasing piles of letters, opened and unopened, filling up every space in every room of the house.
I became more and more concerned that Margaret had been sucked in to something that neither she nor I could handle alone. I saw her as being in the grip of an addiction. It was controlling her – not she controlling it. I started to trawl the Internet and to ring every organisation I could find – Citizens’ Advice, Help the Aged, Age Concern (as it was then), the Alzheimer’s Association, the West Yorkshire Police and Community Police Unit in York, the Post Office, Mind, Gamblers Anonymous, my GP. Some of the people I spoke to knew what I was talking about and were sympathetic but could offer no advice on how to tackle it. Some gave me the advice that she ‘should not answer the letters and bin them’ – but it was far too late for that. Others told me what I already knew – a common therapeutic issue – that it was up to Margaret herself to approach them and ask for help. And she didn’t think she needed it. Others – including a woman on the end of the phone at a York police station – were incredibly unhelpful, telling me that I should never have let it happen (she herself, apparently, wouldn’t have stood for it); that I needed to ‘be firm’. As if it was as easy as that! It wasn’t just about sending the cheques off – it was a comfort activity, it was the feeling that something could be coming through the post, something happening every day – and it was something to do and to fill her time in the days. I felt overwhelmed, realising that I had to deal with it alone. At the same time, I was fighting Margaret’s increasing reluctance to tell me what was going on – partly to cover her secret and partly because she didn’t want to burden me with her troubles.
This is also when I found the thinkjessica.com website. At last – someone knew what I was talking about. And there I found stories of people in the same situation as I was with Margaret – and people who knew that getting help and advice from anywhere else was virtually impossible.
This summer, I finally understood the full extent of the problem. Margaret was receiving up to 30 pieces of mail per day, and becoming exhausted with reading, sorting and answering them (always including a £10 or £20 cheque for ‘administration fees’ or ‘release fees’ ). We – her wonderful neighbours, her cousin Ian and me – have been telling her about these scams for at least three years, trying to get her to see that she was throwing her money away. Sometimes she seemed to hear what we said, and promised that she was finished with it. Often, l had the feeling that she was humouring me by listening, then carrying on exactly as before. There’s a fine line between doing what is best for her and respecting her independence and privacy. Sometimes it seemed to diminish, and I would hope that it had gone away. Of course, I knew it hadn’t. I was just hiding my head in the sand.
Also this summer, a good, kind neighbour phoned me to say that Margaret was having financial difficulties. He had been helping her to sort it out – and had lent her money. She had also let him go through her bank statements and financial affairs. He wanted to let me know what was going on and to find out what I knew about her financial affairs. I could fill him in on a few facts. In the same week, another kind neighbour phoned to say that she was worried about Margaret’s state of mind. I also rang Margaret’s cousin, who had also lent her money. I found that he had also been on at her, done research, told her about the scams she was pouring money into. At last, now, we have all come together. Her post is being redirected and screened by one of her neighbours and her finances are getting back to normal. Meanwhile, she is beginning to get nasty letters from some of the companies, as her cheques were stopped by the Bank. Her fighting spirit returned – she was not going to be bullied, thank God.
Now, as a result of seeing other victims on the Inside Out programme, featuring other victims, Marilyn’s campaigns and thinkjessica, the penny has dropped. It came at the right time for Margaret and I think she will be able to put it all behind her. It won’t be easy and we’re not out of the woods yet. But we have a good chance of beating it.
Last year, last month, even, I had resigned myself to step-by-step damage limitation. I had my head in my hands and could see nothing but a long decline. I thought about it most of the time and bored my children, friends and my partner with talking it through, to no end. Now, there is hope. Margaret is fighting – and so am I.