The UK charity Crimestoppers has launched a website, where you can learn how to protect yourself from crime, look at the photographs of the most wanted criminals in the land or find out what crimes have been committed in your area (this doesn’t seem to be working that well at the moment: I put in my postcode and returned some incidents committed in Hertfordshire… still, the website’s very new and I’m sure these are just teething troubles).
We keep hearing about identity theft, viruses, bad things like that, which originate on the Internet, but it’s also being put to good use (apart from making Christmas shopping easier). There is no doubt the Crimestoppers website will help the police track down at least some nasty people.
There are also now websites that post photographs of stolen goods. I so wish they’d existed at the time my mother became the victim of two clever crooks, back in 1995, in Nice.
Early one sunny morning in June, the doorbell rang and my mother was confronted with a charming young woman who told her she’d been her nurse. My mother didn’t recognize her, but she’d spent a few days in hospital recently so she pretended she did remember her and was quite happy to let her in. It was very warm so they went out on to the balcony and had a nice chat. About 15 minutes later, the doorbell rang again and a man was let in: he proceeded to tell my mother a cock-and-bull story about a robbery being planned at a nearby bank. He said he was an undercover policeman and asked her if she had a deposit box at that particular bank. Yes, she did. He told her she should go and remove everything she had in it straightaway, for the police knew the robbery was to happen that very night and they intended to catch the robbers in flagrante delicto and arrest them. It would be safer for her possessions to be here, at home with her. She could take them back to the bank as soon as the whole thing had been wrapped up.
My poor flustered mother got dressed – the woman helped her – and went with them to the bank. The man waited outside, while the woman made sure my mother didn’t speak to anyone. My mother had been warned not to say a word. She wouldn’t have anyway: she was so scared of making the “operation” fail. She’d been with that bank for over 20 years and people knew her well there. A couple of clerks asked her whether she was all right. She didn’t let on. She went down to the vault, while the woman waited in the lobby, and put everything that was in the safe deposit box into an innocent-looking plastic bag. If she’d asked to take all her money out, the bank would have been suspicious, but what you do in the vault remains private so no one queried anything. They walked her to the flat, where the man looked on as she placed the plastic bag on the top shelf of her wardrobe. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated themselves on a good job done. The “nurse” and “policeman” left soon after.
Still feeling shaky, my mother sat down and had a cup of coffee, then went to check the plastic bag in her wardrobe. It contained huge pebbles (I subsequently discovered they came from a plant display in the lobby of her block of flats). She called the police straightaway and reported the theft, but it was too late. A sympathetic policewoman took down her account of what had happened, but had to tell her there was very little chance of anything being recovered. The pair had stolen stuff from masses of pensioners in the area and were probably already on their way to Italy.
The safe deposit box had contained most of my mother’s jewels (luckily she wore a few favourite pieces every day, so they escaped unscathed); among them was a beautiful brooch, which I’d always wanted to wear – from age three, I think. It also contained her father's cigarette case, my father’s signet ring (a present from a beloved member of his family) and a Patek Philippe watch that had belonged to his father.
But it’s that brooch I miss.
It’s quite possible that, if a Crimestoppers-style website had existed then, that particular incident wouldn’t have happened.
I want to slap all those heartless villains who prey on helpless old people and rob them of some of their memories, not to mention their dignity. My mother never recovered from the shock and the feeling that she’d been made a fool of. She also felt she’d let me down, I think.
If anyone has seen the brooch above, please let me know.