Marilyn Baldwin’s late mother Jessica Looke spent the last five years of her life sending off money, not paying bills, and often going without food to keep up with the demands of scammers. Her family desperately battled to convince her she was being scammed but sadly, she didn’t believe them.
Marilyn (58) told us the harrowing story six years ago, at the time vowing to do everything in her power to prevent other families from suffering. And that is just what she has done. Catching up with her again recently she explains how she launched Think Jessica, a charity that has been hugely successful in making people aware of scamming.
Many of the criminal gangs behind scams operate from overseas, making money by phone, post, and more recently text and email. While millions of people in this country are regularly affected, research shows it’s the elderly who are most likely to be targeted. When her mum was admitted to hospital in 2007, Marilyn removed 30,000 scam letters from her home.
Marilyn says: “After mum died I launched Think Jessica, because I had to do something to try to stop other people going through the same experience. My aim was, and still is, to make people aware of the danger and financial implications caused by postal and telephone scams. The scammers hunt down vulnerable people, get their details, and bombard them with mail or telephone calls urging them to part with their money.”
Marilyn gives talks and presentations on scamming to try to make people understand how the scammers work. “It starts with a simple letter – saying you have won a prize – and can lead to you being brainwashed and parting with thousands of pounds.
‘It’s too late to help my mum, but it’s not too late to help others. That is now my life’s work’
“When people receive their first letter they often truly believe they are in for a big win. They are told to send a small fee in return for a cheque and are also asked to fill in a form with personal details. Their name is then placed on what is known as a ‘suckers list,’ and their details are passed to criminal scammers all over the world. Soon hundreds of letters start arriving with ‘Guaranteed Winner’ on the envelope, and clairvoyants make contact pretending to be friendly, asking for payments to keep bad luck at bay. Scammers create a delusional world to make elderly and vulnerable people feel special.
“Soon every day revolves around sending off money and waiting for the post. Mum refused to spend a night away in case she missed a delivery. Before she died one of the last things she said was, ‘Has the postman been?’ ”
Now, thanks to Marilyn’s tireless work, Think Jessica is supported by numerous agencies, organisations and police forces nationwide. The charity produces literature and DVDs and also organises national poster campaigns to warn about the dangers of scamming. Marilyn has been so successful in highlighting the problem – and supporting thousands of victims and their families – that she regularly meets with MPs to discuss the issue, and earlier this year was awarded an OBE.
The National Trading Standards Scams Team are also currently working to identify the ‘silent victims’ of scams – by passing information to local trading standards to get help for those at risk. Currently they have more than 100 local authorities signed up.
But while progress is being made, Marilyn remains aware that millions of people in this country still fall victim to scamming on a regular basis. The National Trading Standards team say consumers are losing close to £10 billion to scams every year.
Marilyn says: “It remains a huge problem. Criminals are forever coming up with new and more convincing ways of parting people from their cash. It would be impossible for me to even begin to list all the scams out there.”
She also hopes that Jessica Scam Syndrome (JSS) – where people like her mum who repeatedly fall for scams and refuse the advice of family and professionals – will one day be recognised as a condition, and wants to see a time when every person who receives an envelope displaying the words ‘Winner’ throws it away. “Scammers target the most fragile and it has to stop,” she says. “Mum parted with thousands, but the saddest part is that during the last years of her life she gave the scammers everything – including her physical and mental well-being. It’s too late to help Mum, but it’s not too late to help others. That’s now my life’s work.”
How to protect yourself – and others – from the scammers
- Never send cash, disclose personal details or buy goods to claim a prize.
- Watch out for secret deals, get-rich-quick schemes, and inheritance notifications.
- Seek professional advice before signing up for any type of investment scheme.
- You do not have to get into discussion with anyone over the telephone.
- Never give out personal information such as bank or credit card details, as these could be used fraudulently.
- Don’t be fooled by criminals claiming to be clairvoyants.
- To report a scam, call Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.
Photographs copyright UNP