essay published in The Sunday Age
Jean is 90. She is widowed and lives alone in an outer suburb of Melbourne. Her small brick house overlooks a terraced garden with a view of the Dandenongs. Jean used to be a florist and now she cooks, tends the garden and takes care of herself. Jean’s daughter sees her often, her son lives far away.
A couple up the road are Jean’s close-by angels; two men who appreciate her artistry and engaging conversation. Jean met them when they hosted a neighbourhood Christmas-in-July. They changed the start time so Jean could come after church and they’ve since become firm friends.
One hot day in February this year, two blokes who looked like tradies appeared at Jean’s front door. Their ladder was leaning against her verandah roof, they must have brought it in under the climbing rose archway, past the rock orchids and planter boxes.
The tall one with a captivating accent told Jean there was a big problem with her roof tiles absorbing too much water. The roof was in danger of collapsing. Not to worry, he and his friend Alan had been sent to fix it for her and they’d get it sorted.
By the way, said the charismatic front man, they could really do with a drink of cold water, could she help them with that?
The two men stepped into the front hallway past
her telephone on the hallstand. Jean poured them an iced water while they
watched her in the kitchen and the charming one asked how they could get into
the roof. She showed them the manhole at the end of the hallway. They held an
instrument up to the cornices along the hallway and shook their heads.
Jean was surprised but grateful to have help immediately at hand. The blokes explained there was a machine that would blow warm air into the ceiling cavity and dry out the roof. They emphasised that this needed to be done immediately as the roof might collapse under the weight of the water-logged tiles. Unfortunately it was an expensive job.
Jean quailed. She knew something was not right but she felt ashamed to be so confused when such an important thing was at stake. There was no privacy in which to make a phone call but she gathered her resolve. Better to pay now than to regret it later. Good, said the blokes. All she needed to do was pop up to the bank and withdraw the cash. $8,500 should cover it. Could she do that? Did she need any help? Would she like a lift?
Jean said she didn’t need any help, she could go to the bank. “Oh, and by the way,” said the blokes, “Best not to tell the bank what you’re getting it out for, they can make it difficult for you. If they ask, just tell them it’s for personal reasons.”
Jean nodded, gathered up her handbag and drove her Toyota Yaris to the bank. She felt a disquiet that this was not right but she was worried about her roof falling in. She did as the blokes had told her when the teller asked about the cash. She returned with the $8500 in $100 notes. “Terrific,” said the blokes, “We’ll send the special team around in a day or two.” They left. Jean felt uncomfortable. And foolish. She called her daughter.
“Mum,” said her daughter, “that sounds awful. You mustn’t keep worrying about the money, it’s gone now. But I think those blokes will turn up again, they might not look the same, but they will send you back to the bank for more. When they do, you need to do exactly as you did last time, but go straight to the police instead.”
Sure enough a couple of days later, the doorbell rang and there were two different blokes wearing Bunnings caps and uniforms. They had tool boxes with them. “The other guys have sub-contracted the job out to us.” They said they were ready to work on the roof but needed a different piece of equipment. Could Jean go to the bank again? $7,200 should cover it.
This time, Jean was trembling. She knew this was all wrong, but what to do? She felt so disturbed she lost all her usual clarity. She forgot her daughter’s instruction to go to the police and ended up at the bank. The same teller served her as last time. Jean gave her little prepared speech about withdrawing the money for personal reasons. The words felt odd in her mouth, she wasn’t used to lying.
“Jean,” said the teller, “I have to tell you, you are absolutely terrible at lying. And I can’t help noticing that this is the second lump sum you’ve drawn out in a couple of weeks. Is everything ok? A lot of people around here are getting tricked by scammers.”
Jean burst into tears and the bank girl found her a quiet spot to sit, called the police and made her a cup of tea.
A couple of officers came back with Jean to her house but it was too late to nab the conmen. The officers checked the house, nothing had been taken but a large wet patch on the carpet by the grandfather clock revealed an obvious roof-leak ruse. “The wall and the clock were completely dry” said Jean, I know I’m a bad liar but you’d think they’d do better than that.”
The police moved into action, they doorknocked the area and did a letter drop. It turns out that this kind of scamming is such a widespread phenomenon that Consumer Affairs have a website about fake tradies and travelling conmen and recently ran National Scams Awareness Week.
“The worst thing,” said Jean’s daughter, “Was not that they’d stolen her cash. What they stole was her confidence. She can’t trust her own judgement anymore.”
In the way of these things, I tell Jean’s story to my shiatsu therapist. She is perched on the edge of the futon. She covers her face with her hands and does not raise it for some moments. I can see she is genuinely distressed. “How can people do that?” she shakes her head. “How do they understand themselves and what they have done? And now that they’ve lied so successfully, how will they know the difference between their own truth and lies? How will anyone know when to believe them?”
I can’t answer her questions, but I keep thinking about this. I wonder about the eye contact from scammer to victim. The charismatic one looks into the eyes of the one he is about to cheat. It is stomach-curdling –– this gesture of trust designed to deceive.
Isn’t it the same, just less visible, when the banks recently exposed by the royal commission charged many vulnerable and elderly customers fees for services never delivered? Scamming is justified by the assumption that it is reasonable to dupe one’s fellow humans in order to make a profit.
The royal commission into financial misconduct revealed the story of a 26-year-old man with Down Syndrome who was entrapped by a cold call and sold life insurance policies he did not understand. The company’s actions in refusing to immediately terminate the policy were highlighted in a set of recordings played before the commission. The young man’s father said the incident “had a lasting impact on this son, who blamed himself for the sale…”
Our community depends on our connection with each other. When that is violated, we are all diminished. Cheating costs us all and it costs us more than money.
Six months later Jean has recovered herself. The money is gone but she hasn’t lost much sleep over it. She was initially ashamed to tell this story but wants to share it so others can see how it happens. Jean says she’s not living in fear, her faith has helped her, and she has her family and the friendship of good neighbours. She shows me a quilt one of the Christmas-in-July men made for her 90th. Stroking the intricate patchwork of appliqued embroidery, she declares, “You wouldn’t believe the work in it!”
Now in the wintertime, coming into spring,Jean sleeps under this mantle of care and a roof that has not fallen in.