Imagine, for a moment, you are old. Your partner is gone now; your children are living their own lives far away. Your health isn’t what it was, and the technological world of today is often confusing. You are lonely.
One day, the phone rings. You answer, hoping it might be one of your children. But it isn’t.
A man’s voice speaks. ‘Hello, it’s Davie Millar. Is that husband of yours there?’
John died in an accident at work many years ago. You explain, and Davie makes shocked noises and offers belated condolences. You ask how he knew John.
Davie explains that he worked in the same company years ago, then went out to Australia. His proposed two-year stay there stretched to twenty, but now he’s home again and looking up some of his old friends. John had been a kind of mentor to him, the older man who helped a young apprentice find his feet in the company.
You can’t remember John ever mentioning Davie, but you hardly like to say, and it was a long time ago, anyway. Davie asks if you have family nearby, and you start to tell him all about your children. He’s interested – he remembers how proud John was of the kids.
Before long, you’ve agreed to Davie’s suggestion that he comes over for coffee and a chat about the old days. You hang up, pleased to have found an old family friend.
Little do you know you’ve just invited a conman into your home.
We’ll stop the story there; I’m sure we can all imagine what might happen next. This is the kind of scenario I based the plot of Ward Zero on. Originally, the idea came from a consumer TV programme here in Switzerland, but after writing the book I discovered that I actually knew two people who had direct experience of this kind of scam.
One was an elderly lady, quite a long time ago, and she fell for it. She lost a lot of money. The other was much younger, and fortunately realised almost straightaway what was going on. She hung up, and became one of the conman’s failures.
So what’s the moral of the story? Be very careful – nowadays especially be careful online. And keep an eye on elderly family members, friends and neighbours. Because fact and real life can be stranger – and far crueler – than fiction.