March 10, 2013

'Jamaican lottery scam' bilking senior citizens out of millions

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Kim Nichols of Maine will testify Wednesday in Washington about her father’s experience with scammers.

Photo by Pat Grossmith/Union Leader

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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:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

 

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