A crisp, white envelope lands on the mat – not obviously another charity appeal, nor an invitation to read my own electricity meter. It’s addressed to me; the spelling and the address are right. Inside is a typed letter in sometimes peculiar, but correctly spelt, English.
The sender, who gives a name, but has not signed, claims to be a business relations manager for a Hong Kong bank and spins a cock-and-bull story about a supposedly long-lost relative who has died suddenly (in China), leaving the proceeds of a large investment. Would I like help in reclaiming it, the sum to be split 50/50?
Now the reasons I know this is a cock-and-bull story, aside from its general improbability, are, first, that the long-lost relative is named as John Dejevsky. The sender is not to know how absurd that sounds – given that relatives on my husband’s side have Slavonic names. Second, that even the most shark-like banker or lawyer offering to assist in such circumstances is unlikely to demand a 50 per cent cut. And third – the absolute giveaway – is that the letter starts with a plea for confidentiality. I hope “Mr Cai Li”, if he exists, who purports to be contactable on firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone in Hong Kong (+852) 81703922, reads The Independent.
The only consolation, I suppose, is that he does not demand money, or my bank details, up front, like the Nigerian internet con artists do. A slight step up the sophistication scale, then. So why am I even giving it the time of day. Well, there is the spurious authenticity lent by the fact that the envelope is franked in the UK – why is “explained” in the letter. There’s also the probability that some recipients will indeed have a relative named John, the (false) news of whose untimely death may come as an awful shock.
Mainly, though, I want to know how “Mr Cai Li” acquired my name and address. He won’t have found it in the phone book, because the entry is in my husband’s name. This leaves internet transactions – though I mostly use Mrs in the non-professional context – or an old version of the electoral register (before my husband obtained citizenship and qualified to vote).
Because of the ID question, and the clearly extortionate intent, I called the police (101, non-emergency – surprisingly, there’s no dedicated line for such unwanted approaches, though they must be common). Whoever answered the phone was entirely reasonable, pointing out that no crime had been committed, though I was welcome to hand the letter in. They even called back with the address of my nearest police station. There, I helpfully remarked that the franking might show where it had been posted, but the kindly lack of interest suggested to me that recycling, rather than forensics, might be its destination.
Lights aren't just for Christmas
My first instinct, on hearing that Oxford Street had switched on its Christmas lights, was to growl about the annual advance of the festive season. But how about another approach? Given that the lighting in most cities –including London – is hopelessly inadequate, Christmas illuminations represent a huge improvement. So rather than complain that they come on too early, I’ll grumble instead that they are dismantled too soon. If we thought of them as winter – rather than Christmas – lights, we could cheer ourselves up through the dark days of February, and take pride in being modern and multicultural, too.