Beware of scammers perusing the obituaries to target widows like me
Watch out for fake tax or credit card invoices, writes Esther Rantzen
It will soon be Christmas-card time, if you still send them. It means that this week I must look through my treasured list of friends and family to work out who to send an emailed card to, who is only comfortable with snail mail and whose name, saddest category of all, has to be crossed off the list because last Christmas was, tragically, their last. One year I failed to spot that a colleague’s wife had passed away, and I addressed my card to both of them. He sent me a sweet correction and I felt terrible. But in these busy times it can be difficult to stay in regular touch with everyone that matters to you, so these mistakes can happen. To err may be human, but it can happen with computers, too. In 2001, a year or so after my late husband, Desmond, died, I received a letter addressed to him from the NSPCC, which began, “Dear Mr Wilcox, We haven’t heard from you for some time and we wondered whether …” At the time, I was a trustee on the board of the NSPCC, so I sent a note to their director of fundraising saying that I hadn’t heard from Desi recently either, but if they did hear from him, please would they let me know? He rang me straight away, “Esther, what can I say? I’m speechless” and then spent 20 minutes apologising, while I tried to interrupt and say I quite understood and as Desi was a keen supporter of the NSPCC he would also understand – even be quite amused. Personally, as a bereaved person, I don’t expect everyone to mourn, as I do, the loss of the someone I deeply loved and still remember every day, over 20 years later. But, equally, I don’t expect callousness or cruelty. So it was a huge shock when at Childline we did our first survey into bullying ( a scourge that has caused so many children so much suffering and whatever we do to try to stamp it out is as persistent now as ever) and found one of the reasons children are targeted is bereavement. How can that be? That a child who loses a parent, or a sibling, or a pet, can be teased and bullied as a result? What a horrible reflection on humanity. Because it doesn’t only apply to children. There are scammers who carefully peruse the obituary columns in newspapers to try to identify the bereaved and send them lying invoices in the name of the person who has passed away. They may pretend to be a life insurance company that needs one last premium before they can pay out the whole sum. They may pretend to be the taxman or a credit card company. And in the confusion and sorrow of those early days, far too many of those fake invoices are paid. Some hideous conmen even pretend that a husband had ordered pornography, and demand payment for that. You would think even a scammer might have a level of decency which would hold them back. It seems not. So if you have lost someone you love, and are facing a lonely Christmas without them, I send you my sympathy and best wishes. I vividly remember my first Christmas without Desi, finding each of my three children separately in tears, unable to bear the sight of his empty chair. Please forgive old friends who inadvertently send you Christmas cards in both your names. Maybe also forgive the charities whose computers fail to update their data. But don’t ever forgive the scammers who try to trick you into paying fake invoices. They should be reported to your local police or Action Fraud. But reviving old memories can be a joy as well as a sorrow. A recent drama based on the crimes of the Yorkshire Ripper included a reconstruction of a programme made in 1981 by my late husband. A kind friend sent me the link to the original programme made by Yorkshire Television and brilliantly chaired by Desi. I watched it with joy. So if you are bereaved, I hope that you too have reminders that can bring back the person you have loved and lost, and remind you what a privilege it was to have them in your life. And good luck with your Christmas-card list. If you still send them.