The Road to Damascus
I’ve mentioned briefly that, my parents had been scammed, and as a result, I had been forced to admit to myself the degree of misery I had caused by doing something similar.
My parents are fairly typical of their generation; he worked while she was a homemaker raising me and my siblings. We lived in a modest but clean home, and went abroad once a year on holiday. My parents avoided any form of credit; never taking out credit cards, and paying their mortgage off as soon as they could. What they couldn’t afford to pay for, they either denied themselves or they saved up and bought it. They inherited a total of about £20,000 from their own parents.
After living frugally, their retirement was spent shopping together, gardening and cosy nights in watching rubbish television. He volunteered as a driver for a charity, and she indulged her passion for cinema with a monthly pass to our local multiplex. Then in their seventies, their future was secure - or so they believed. They didn’t have expensive tastes, and refused to spend their savings on anything non-essential. They always held family gatherings at their house, despite it groaning at the seams when all the grandchildren arrived at once.
One Friday morning, Dad was sitting in the living room watching TV with a cup of tea and too many digestives. The house phone rang (he has never had a mobile) and the guy on the other end introduced himself as a Police Officer, and immediately assured him that there was nothing wrong and there was nothing to be worried about.
‘Detective Constable Jones’ explained that he was investigating a cashier at my dad’s bank who was stealing customers’ cash. The ‘detective’ said he needed my dad’s assistance to catch the thief in the act. My dad has always been a big supporter of the police, so he agreed to do anything he could to help. Within 30 minutes a car arrived outside the house and a smart, suited guy knocked and introduced himself as DC Jones. He showed my dad his warrant card and dad offered him a cup of tea. The officer politely declined and pointed out that time was of the essence: they needed to move quickly. He asked Dad if he had any money in the house - which he hadn’t - and then asked him to bring his bank cards and his passport or driving licence with him, as they were going into town.
During the ten-minute journey into town, my dad, sitting in the back of the police car, got the rundown on what the detective wanted him to do to assist. This involved my dad withdrawing a large amount of cash from his current account. He assured dad that dad's money would be returned to him as soon as the suspect had been arrested.The fake detective explained that if the cashier asked my dad why he needed the money he was to say he was buying a nice second-hand car.
The detective parked around the corner, and told my dad to wait outside the bank while he went inside to make sure the suspected cashier was present. He came back within a minute, having confirmed he was and ushered Dad inside, having told him which queue to stand in. Dad was duly asked why he was withdrawing nearly half of his life savings and gave the rehearsed answer as agreed. He withdrew £9,000 in £50 notes, and left the bank where he was met by the detective who took him back to the car. They sat together and the detective took photographs of each £50 note on his mobile phone and wrote Dad a receipt with an official police stamp on it, which they both signed. The detective thanked Dad profusely and drove him back home. He suggested that due to the sensitive nature of the crime, my dad was now bound by the Official Secrets Act and could not discuss this with anyone. The detective told Dad that he would be in touch in a few days. Dad later told me that he actually felt privileged to be sufficiently trusted to play such an important role in a police investigation.
True to his word, the detective rang him back on Monday morning and confirmed that Dad had not discussed this with anyone - not even my mum. The detective explained that things were worse than they thought at the bank, and that at least one other cashier was working with the original thief, and once again they needed his help. The detective and Dad went back to the bank, withdrew another £9,000, without any questions being asked this time, and the officer said that they now had a watertight case. He again took photographs of the notes, gave Dad a receipt, and asked him when he wanted to come and collect the entire £18,000 from the police station. He even said that because he was such an important part of the investigation, one of his colleagues would escort him back to the bank to prevent him from being robbed!
As agreed with DC Jones, Dad went to the police station at 10am the following day. The Sergeant on the front desk knew nothing of £18,000 in cash waiting to be collected and he had never heard of DC Jones. A (genuine) detective then took Dad into a private office and asked him to talk him through the whole sorry story. The detective explained that Dad had been conned, but he was not alone. In the past fortnight he was personally aware of at least another three victims who all lived locally, and who had fallen for exactly the same scam. Dad was devastated, embarrassed and ashamed in equal measure. Rather than ring Mum, he rang me and told me what had happened. I think for the first time in my entire life, I was completely speechless. I could hear the quiver in his normally strong voice and could tell that he was more worried about telling Mum, and what it would do to her, than actually losing the cash itself.
The detective came on the line and pretty much repeated everything Dad had said. My conversations with detectives are normally recorded in an interview room, so this was unknown territory for me. The detective was polite, sympathetic and genuinely seemed to care about my dad. He asked me if I could pick Dad up and take him home as he didn’t believe that he was fit to drive after such a shock. To my unending shame - I said that I couldn’t. I came up with some flimsy excuse and suggested that the detective put him in a taxi instead and that I would collect his car the next day. The reality was that I had an irrational fear that one of the detectives might recognise me as someone they had questioned before, in relation to similar scams. In truth, the chances of my being recognised were much smaller than were the chances that a fraudster like me would live to see his own parents become victims of his own sordid industry.
Nevertheless, that selfish fear trumped my dad’s need to get home and begin to deal with this event - this trauma - and I let him down. This is the same guy who set the best possible example to his children, provided everything they ever needed and went without so we didn’t have to - and I couldn’t even take him home. In the end, the detective himself took Dad home, and helped him explain to Mum what had happened. This further sharpened the contrast between the good guys and what I had become, deepening my sense of self-loathing.
A few things happen in life that fundamentally change your point of view. If you are lucky, it is something wonderful, like the birth of a child. For me it was an acknowledgement that I let down one of the few people I love, because I wanted to save my own skin from an imagined threat. Worse, I had carried out similar scams, without a second thought, to dozens of mums, dads, and grandparents. My shame seemed boundless. In that moment, I decided to stop.
Over the next few weeks I rang mum and dad every day to check on them. He put on a brave face, but I know how deeply it affected him. They adopted their typical stoic approach to problems, and I think that they dealt with it better than I did. Conscience is a monster; I lost sleep, lost weight, and stopped functioning on many levels. To try and ‘do the right thing,’ I offered them the £18,000 as a gift after coming up with some excuse that I had been given a bonus for contract work. They refused it outright. I had a good idea about who had scammed Dad, and confirmed it easily through a mutual contact. I knew where he lived and the car he drove, so I rang Crimestoppers and told them that he was responsible. When he was arrested, a wad of £50 notes was found in his flat together with a mobile phone containing images of £50 notes being held by elderly fingers inside a car. I’m not sure if that was my dad holding the money - but I like to think so.