WASHINGTON – It began with a series of reassuring calls and a request for a $500 fee — not a back-breaking sum for a retired professional pilot — in order to claim the prize.
By the time the nonstop calls were halted six month later, Kim Nichols’ elderly father had lost his health, his trust and $85,000 to Jamaica-based scam artists who were as convincing as they were relentless. And worst of all, Nichols was told there was practically nothing anyone in the federal government — not the FBI, not the attorney general, not customs officials — could do about it.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how alone that made me feel,” said Nichols, who lives near Bangor.
Nichols is far from alone.
There is a rising number of complaints from family members, phone company officials and local law enforcement that federal officials are not doing enough to address the so-called “Jamaican lottery scam” that has likely bilked millions of dollars from senior citizens in Maine and northern New England.
On Wednesday, the issue will get congressional attention during a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Aging. The problem is national in scope but appears to be heavily focused on Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, three states with among the oldest populations in the country.
“There’s nobody taking the ball and advancing it down the field on the scams, and I don’t know why,” said Chief Deputy William King with the York County Sheriff’s Office, who has taken the lead regionally in attempting to fight the scam and will testify along with Nichols on Wednesday. “They are complicated cases, but not that complicated.”
Pursuing and prosecuting international scams is challenging due to lack of jurisdiction and the scope of the problem. But senators are expected to ask officials what more can be done to combat the scam, whether in the U.S. or in other countries.
Representatives from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Postal Service and the money-wire service Western Union will also testify at Wednesday’s hearing, called “876-SCAM: Jamaican Phone Fraud Targeting Seniors,” due to the country’s “876″ area code.
“While I believe that our Senate hearings will increase public awareness of these schemes, it is also critical that governments at all levels and across international boundaries work together to shut down these con artists before their sophisticated scams exploit yet another trusting senior citizen,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top-ranking Republican on the committee, said in a statement.
It’s impossible to say how many seniors have been duped by the sophisticated crime ring. Phishing for victims, the scammers call senior citizens advising them they’ve won a prize such as a car or a large amount of money.
Many eventual victims start off skeptical but are slowly convinced by the steady stream of calls from other people at legitimate-sounding offices, all of whom assure them the prize is real. All they need is an initial payment — a fee to cover taxes or other costs.
Gradually, the scammers build the victims’ trust as they ask for more and more money as well as access to personal information.
Although there are many scams targeting senior citizens, the lottery scams originating in Jamaica have become big business, with an estimated 30,000 calls a day to the U.S. Jamaican authorities have pegged it as a $300 million industry run by gangs and organized crime units.
Working with FairPoint Communications, King has identified nearly 200 victims so far with an average loss of about $70,000. They also believe that only about 10 percent of victims come forward, with most staying silent about their losses due to shame or fear of losing their financial independence.
The losses are enough to make one gasp.
• $700,000 stolen from an Eagle Lake-area woman.
• $140,000 taken from a woman in Cape Elizabeth.
• $80,000 scammed from a Biddeford victim.
• $85,000 stolen in dribs and drabs from Nichols’ father, who lives in New Hampshire.
But the human toll of those financial losses is even worse.
The health of the victims — most already well into their supposed “golden years” — often sharply deteriorates as the scam drags on. The Biddeford woman who lost $80,000 was forced to leave Maine and move in with relatives out West because of her failing health.
The scammers cultivate seemingly deep relationships with the often widowed or solitary seniors by calling to check on them at night, on holidays or during stormy weather. They pose as friends, confidants and even potential romantic interests, all the while ostracizing victims from their real families.
In one instance, a woman found her elderly family member dressed up and waiting near the door of her home. The contact had promised to take her out to dinner at a local restaurant where she would finally receive a check for her winnings. Of course, neither the man nor the check ever materialized.
They also cajole, harass and intimidate.
Scammers have called one home as many as 40 to 50 times in a day. They’ve arranged for plumbers or taxi drivers to drop off pre-paid cellphones to seniors whose families have changed their phone numbers. One brazen scammer, feigning concern for his supposed friend or relative, even called New Hampshire police asking for an officer to check on Nichols’ father.
“They’re brutal to people,” said Jeff Nevins, spokesman for FairPoint. “They threaten them and they basically scare people. This is a professional operation. They know what they are doing and they know how to work a person.”
What can be equally maddening for family members is the lack of recourse after discovering a loved one has lost every penny he or she owns, and sometimes more.
FairPoint established a website, www.bewareof876.com, to warn the public about the scam and post tips about avoiding or reporting a problem. As a result, the company regularly fields calls from people across the nation desperate for help after being passed off by numerous other agencies.
Nevins received a call recently from a woman in Virginia whose aunt was in the mental grip of the scammers.
“She was saying, ‘Can you help me?’ ” Nevins recalled. “And we couldn’t, she wasn’t our customer. All we can do is direct her back to local law enforcement and try to help her find somebody to convince her aunt not to give them any more money.”
Nevins added there are public resources for problem gamblers and addiction programs for drug or alcohol abusers.
“But for people who are looking for help for a parent or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle being scammed, there’s really nothing out there,” he said.
King, who has handed over names and addresses of scammers to federal authorities, said he realizes that all agencies are over-taxed and have different priorities. But King has personally documented 186 cases and he suspects that is barely the beginning.
“We don’t know how widespread this is, but we do know there are 30,000 calls leaving Jamaica every day,” King said.
Nichols said her 77-year-old father “aged tremendously” due to the stress but is fortunate compared to others in that he kept his house. But she hopes that by sharing her father’s tale she can raise the alert among other senior citizens and pressure federal authorities to get more involved.
“This is happening nationwide. Why aren’t we doing anything about?” she said. “And (scammers) know we aren’t.”
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at (207) 317-6256 or at:
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC