March 13, 2013

Senators urge crackdown on phone scammers

The so-called "Jamaican lottery scam" has cost some seniors in Maine hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON – Senators called on Jamaican and U.S. officials to step up their efforts to crack down on phone scammers who are stealing millions of dollars from senior citizens in Maine and throughout the country.

"We want to see somebody indicted," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said Wednesday afternoon. "And then . . . we want to see them extradited to the U.S. That will have a chilling effect on a number of these people who think they are bulletproof."

Nelson and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, are leading a hearing on the so-called "Jamaican lottery scam" that has cost some seniors in Maine hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some estimates put the nationwide toll at $300 million.

Collins, who is the top-ranking Republican on the committee, said she was "deeply troubled" by what she portrayed as a lack of urgency in both countries in tackling the issue.

"For far too long, Jamaican authorities turned a blind eye to this fraud, which was illegally bringing an estimated $300 million annually to their economy," Collins said. "I am also troubled by the lack of an aggressive and coordinated effort on the part of U.S. federal law enforcement officials to protect our nation’s most vulnerable senior citizens."

The Jamaica-based scammers often call senior citizens and inform them that they won a sweepstakes prize, the lottery or a new car. After repeated calls often from other people with official-sounding titles, the scammers convince victims to pay an initial fee to cover taxes or costs. They then continue to extort money from the victims, often with dozens of harassing and threatening calls per day.

Vance Callender, operations chief for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, acknowledged that the process has been slow but said the foundation is being laid to work with Jamaican officials to prosecute more crimes.

"Jamaica is a country that we can extradite out of," Callendar said. "These things will happen. I can guarantee it."

Two witnesses from Maine testified during the hearing: Kim Nichols of Hermon, whose father sent $85,000 to scammers before she was able to halt it; and Chief Deputy William King of the York County Sheriff’s Office, who has led efforts to fight the scam in Maine.

This story will be updated.

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