ALFRED – In August 2011, the York County Sheriff’s Office learned of a local woman who lost approximately $100,000 in pursuit of a lottery scam. We soon found out she was just one of many in Maine who were being scammed. Another woman lost $600,000 of her life savings. Our investigation quickly traced the victims’ money to Jamaica, and we contacted federal authorities.

As a small sheriff’s office, we implored federal authorities, stationed in New England, to get involved in these scams, but nothing seemed to work. We were disappointed with the hands-off approach exhibited by our federal counterparts regarding this horrendous crime. We learned of a federal task force stationed in Jamaica named “Project JOLT” — which stands for “Jamaican Organized Links to Telemarketing.” Locating them was challenging, and we were initially told the task force had been disbanded.

We also discovered that a loosely organized task force was set up in North Carolina targeting the Jamaican lottery scammers. However, none of the federal authorities we spoke with offered any hope of successfully prosecuting the Jamaican scammers. They explained that their effectiveness was hampered by limited resources, other priorities, Jamaican authorities, and limited Jamaican laws prosecuting scammers.

With dim hopes of prosecuting these perpetrators ourselves, we decided upon a course of education. We partnered with local telephone provider, FairPoint Communications, in an effort to raise the visibility of this issue by launching a public awareness campaign. We learned that every day 30,000 calls left the small island of Jamaica destined for the United States — most destined for New England. It was clear to me that our seniors were under attack by sophisticated Jamaican scammers, and it appeared that federal, as well as local law enforcement were unable to help these victims or their families.

Fast forward to today — there is renewed interest in the Jamaican Lottery Scam by federal authorities. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has emerged as the lead agency, recently announcing they will be setting up a dedicated telephone line to handle all Jamaican Lottery Scam calls. The FTC will now assimilate scam reports and coordinate the investigation of these crimes from the domestic victim to the scam organizers in Jamaica.

Mainers have one person to thank for facilitating this “change of heart” by federal authorities. It is our own Senator Susan Collins. Late last year, FairPoint arranged meetings with the Congressional delegations from Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to urge them to provide more resources to the federal agencies who work with Project JOLT. Kim Nichols, whose father was victimized by the scammers, traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet face to face with the Congressional delegations.

Sen. Collins was so moved by Nichols’ story, that after being named the top Republican on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, she asked the chair, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, to hold a hearing on the issue. In a news release announcing the hearing, Sen. Collins was quoted as saying, “Our parents and grandparents worked hard their entire lives and saved for retirement. They should not be targeted by criminals who want to rob them of their hard-earned savings.” 

As a result of Sen. Collins’ urging, a special hearing on the subject was held in March to find out what, if anything, federal agencies were doing about the scams. The hearing put an international spotlight on the scam with all three major networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — running in-depth reports on their evening news shows. Veteran reporter, Dan Rather did a one hour news segment on the scam, even traveling to Jamaica and interviewing the scammers.

Influencing the priorities of foreign countries and federal agencies is no easy task, even for someone with the political stature of Sen. Collins. But her efforts seem to be working.

Her involvement prompted the Jamaican government to expedite extradition proceedings of suspected scammers, a major obstacle in prosecuting these criminals in the past. She recently co-sponsored legislation that required the FTC to establish a special office, dedicated to investigating scams. It is clear that federal law enforcement officials are being monitored and closely scrutinized by the senator’s office to ensure this crime against our elderly remains a priority — and she’s holding people accountable.

As a local law enforcement officer I am very appreciative of Sen. Collins’ interest in this policing challenge. As a constituent of Sen. Collins, I have witnessed firsthand, the leadership role she has taken in exposing this unmerciful victimization of our most vulnerable citizens. We all should be very appreciative of her efforts to protect Maine’s senior citizens.

William King is chief deputy with the York County Sheriff’s Office and a resident of Saco.