Why hate junk mail? Panorama.
I was a contributor to Panorama’s documentary on junk mail and postal scams. If you blinked, you would have missed my head and shoulders saying that my mother was spending between £2,000 and £4,000 per month on these scams: cheque after cheque after cheque. Here is some background.
Are you or someone close to you being scammed, by post, email or on the telephone?
Have you had letters, emails or phone calls saying CONGRATULATIONS and YOU ARE A WINNER?
Then are you asked to send money – between £10 and £25 - as a ‘release fee’, ‘administration fee’ or ‘postage and packing’?
If you have, you’re being scammed.
- if you really have won something, you will have entered a competition or a lottery
- if you really have won something, you will NOT be asked to send a cheque or give your credit or debit card details.
Pensioner scams: Margaret’s story
On Thursday 25th November’s edition of Calendar News, my mother, Margaret has had the great courage to give an interview to Tina Gelder about her involvement with scammers who are taking advantage of her and many, many other older people, taking their money and sucking them into a spiral of decline. My mother is on her way out of that nightmare. She’s not ‘cured’ and it certainly wasn’t a quick fix, but she’s seen a ray of light and has come out fighting. Good for her!
To read a fuller version of Margaret’s story, scroll down to Margaret’s story, further down this page. This is also published on the Thinkjessica website: www.thinkjessica.com
Here, I want to tell you something about my own involvement. If you are anything like me, you’ll be looking for help and advice. If you’re lucky, you will have found the thinkjessica website, read the stories and found that you are not alone in your struggles. You will also have come up against incomprehension, dismissal, stupid suggestions and a total lack of good, authoritative advice and support.
The Thinkjessica campaign
This year, the thinkjessica team are launching a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of this pernicious and horrible industry. We have backing from consumer institutions, Scotland Yard and a number of other interested groups. We’re hoping that we will be able to link up with charities and other bodies and institutions to get the funding to offer support in the near future. Before that, though, we have to get people in authority to take it seriously and people in general to see that there is a problem and be able to identify the victims. That is the focus of the campaign.
The extent of the scam industry
We know that it is a massive issue. Whenever there is any publicity about it in the media: articles, television programmes like Inside Out or Calendar News, the response goes stratospheric. The www.thinkjessica.com website gets thousands of hits and enquiries from relatives like me who are at their wits’ end. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Many, many more older people without relatives – people who are isolated, unwell and frail – are at the mercy of scammers and are being bled to death. This isn’t an exaggeration. We know.
It’s often said that our children and grandchildren are the future. That’s true, of course; I see the future in my own children and grandchildren and I applaud any investment in it; I want them to have the best grounding and foundation for their lives. But think about it – this country’s and other developed countries’ polpulations are getting older. For example, figures for the number of dependent older people in England are projected to grow from two and a half million in 2001 to just over four million in 2031 – an increase of 57%.(Source: Personal Social Services Research Unit (PSSRU) report on long term care/Government Actuary’s Department)
By 2040, the number of people over 64 in Britain is expected to grow from 9.5 million to 15 million. (Source: Catalyst Report)
So, it seems to me that older people are also the future.
Scamming – a growth industry
There’s a lot of talk in the marketing community about reaching out and tapping in to that enormous older citizen or ‘silver pound’ market, and some have started to exploit it. The rogue and criminal companies involved in this particular, nasty and exploitative industry are way ahead of the game and rubbing their hands in glee at the potential for growth and development. And it’s all going on below the radar. The Silence of the Scams campaign hopes to address this lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding in the wider community and to stop it. It’s a big ask, and we don’t expect to change the world.
This monster has many heads. No two victims are the same – the companies are clever, targeting the different psychological and emotional weaknesses of their victims. Some offer friendship, sympathy and psychic and mystic ‘help’. Some tap in to a need for excitement and change. Some hook their victims by appealing to their real or perceived lack of money, of friends and understanding, of a future, of status and importance, of something to do with the day. All of them ask for money – a £10 or £20 ‘fee’ that will lead to fabulous gains and a golden future. They also operate over the internet, through scam emails.
My own experience – an introduction
I am Margaret’s daughter and also a Life and Executive Coach. Over the last few years I’ve been on the long, frustrating and despairing journey that relatives of the victims of scammers inevitably go on. I’ve wanted to write about this for years, but I haven’t been able to without exploiting and exposing my mother behind her back. Now she’s given me permission – with some restrictions – as she wants to help people in her situation. So in the coming few weeks, I plan to write about my experiences and to pass on some suggestions and strategies that have helped me.
For a start, here are a few bits of information and advice that I found useful
- You’re not alone. Other people are in the same situation as you are
- Your inability to find professional or experienced help is not a failure – there isn’t any – as yet. We’re on the case.
- It’s not your responsibility. Yes, you may choose to have a responsibility, as a caring relative, but it is ultimately up to the person to get out of it themselves – with help
- You can’t deal with it by yourself. Get other people on board and in the loop –for support and to talk to about the situation, as well as for actual, concrete help. I have other relatives who are interested in what is happening, who I can discuss ideas and strategies with, and who will back me up. I don’t have to rely entirely on my children and partner who get as frustrated as I do, who have their own agenda and their own lives and who have been bored by my constant talking about it, worried about me and the effects of the stress it causes me – and angry with my mother.
- If you’re lucky enough to have people who can help you, don’t be afraid to tell them what is going on if you’re worried. I didn’t do so for a long time, not wanting to betray my mother or go behind her back to her friends. When I did, I found that they were aware that something was going on and were also worried. Two of the people I contacted knew exactly what was happening and had tried to stop it themselves, with no luck. At present, I don’t live close enough to see Margaret every day and I couldn’t have handled it without the help of Margaret’s wonderful neighbours, although this cannot be a long-term solution.
- If you realise that it is going on – and you’ll probably find this out by accident – don’t ignore it and hope it will go away. Don’t think that it’s just a passtime and that as long as your mother, father or relative can afford it, it won’t do any harm. It will. Tell them about it. Show them the stories on the thinkjessica website and show them authoritative facts – in print – about the companies they are dealing with.
I may be able to help
As yet, we don’t have the funding to offer free ongoing support. I am a life coach (look at the other pages on this website – click on the headings in the left-hand column on this page – to find out about what coaching is, and my qualifications, etc). If you need support in your attempts to help your own relative, from someone who has been there (and still is) too, I can help. At the moment, I can’t do it for free (apart from the first free session) but I would be happy to offer a discount on phone coaching. Click here to contact me to find out more.
If you can’t afford one to one life coaching, my experience (at the end of this piece) may help you and give you some pointers. After all, Margaret was heavily involved, a chronic victim – to the tune of many thousands of pounds per year – and she has turned a corner. It can happen.
Hints and tips
- Be patient. The fact that these letters are scams will be obvious to you, but won’t be to your relative. Show them evidence – from the www.thinkjessica.com website, age uk scams website or the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) government website. A relevant and authoritative print, screen or TV piece or story will sometimes set the recovery in motion. It did with my mother – after literally years of being ‘told’.
- Ask and listen rather than tell and argue. If you set up a conflict situation, your relative may either push against it or become secretive. It’s important to keep the issue alive and in the open so that you can discuss it without it becoming a war zone. (and yes, it’s difficult!)
- Being a victim of scams is not a rational course of action. It’s emotional, which is why it is so difficult to shift. If you make your relative feel that he or she is stupid for being taken in, or a silly old person, you won’t get far. All sorts of people, including well-educated, reasonable people are duped by these companies, for all sorts of reasons; the promise of a future, excitement (possible winnings, waiting for the post), something ‘meaningful’ to do each day, communication.
- Try to get inside the person’s head and ask questions to find out why they are doing it (which is why talking about it rather than shouting and telling is a better option). You may then find a way in that leads to a shift in attitude.
- Get the post redirected if you possibly can. This has helped Margaret enormously. The forms are available from Post Offices, and you do have to pay a fee. Of course, you will also need your relative’s signature, so you will need to persuade him or her to do it. The line I took, once Margaret had realised that nothing was going to come of any of these promises, was to point out that all the post she was getting was making her anxious and confused. Which is absolutely true; there is a sinister synergy between this industry and dementia or memory problems. I do realise that I say ‘Once she had realised…’ and that’s the hard part. She realised – and many others have, too – when she saw the piece on TV. Then it’s a matter of using the opportunity – the chink in the obsession – to put a post redirect in place, fast.
Update 13th June 2011
Things are never that easy!! Margaret decided, after all the problems she had financially last year, to change her name back to her married name. I think it was to start afresh and to put it all behind her. It was a lot of hassle, but we managed to do it. Meanwhile all her post in the previous name was redirected.
So now her post is building up again – the scammers got her new name and details on the phone. Her new name is now on the suckers lists (mailing lists of willing participants that are sold between the scammers) and the whole thing has started again. I have now redirected the new name post to me – not a popular move with Margaret herself, but she did eventually agree and signed the form.
I took the form to the local post office to get it done and the woman behind the counter recognised Margaret and, as Margaret waited outside for me to finish the process, she told me that they had all been very worried about her in the post office because she was buying lots of postal orders to send! I did notice that she was withdrawing large amounts of cash each month (we go through her bank statements together every month) but thought it was for day to day expenses.
told 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, £20 or £25 – 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/taxi fare to the Hospital/new spectacles had cost. I knew that in fact, her relatively comfortable income was guaranteed and unchanging from month to month: her occupational pension, state pension and a guaranteed monthly amount from a discounted gift trust investment.
- 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 and Age Concern (as it was then, now Age UK), 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 help. 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’s as easy as that!
Why was she doing it?
It wasn’t just about winning money after a while, although that was the ‘obsession’ and original motivating factor. It gave her the feeling of a future; that something could be coming through the post, something happening every day and something to look forward to. And it was something to do and to fill her time during the days. During her periods of real confusion, it was a comfort activity: she could settle down in a comfortable chair with her post and a pen, then got to get stamps and to post the letters. Filling in any other kind of forms filled her with anxiety, but she knew how to fill in these forms, which made her feel more secure and in control.
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.
Last summer, I finally understood the full extent of the problem. Margaret was receiving over 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, only to carry on exactly as before. 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. There’s a fine line between doing what is best for her and respecting her independence and privacy. I realised that I had to step over that line, stop hiding my head and get involved.
Also last 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 finances. 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 rang Ian, Margaret’s cousin, who I knew had lent her money as well. I found that he had also been concerned, done research been on at her, telling 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. She is also starting to get bullying phone calls. Her fighting spirit returned – she was not going to be bullied, thank God.
Now, as a result of seeing 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.