December 2, 2012

Maine cop goes all out for victims of 'lotteries'

The York County officer works with FairPoint and others to end a crime that targets the elderly.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

In a quavering voice, the elderly York County woman insisted she had no more money.

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The man on the other end of the phone call was understanding, soothing -- but insistent.

The only way she could claim her $2.5 million prize and get back the tens of thousands of dollars she had already paid in fees and taxes was to make one final payment.

Maybe she had untapped credit cards, or friends who would lend her money?

Maj. William King of the York County Sheriff's Office knows the pressure tactics well, and it makes him angry.

"These people are ruthless. They will just suck you dry," said King, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, which included a stint with the Department of Justice.

King sees himself as the voice of victims who often are too afraid or too embarrassed to come forward.

Authorities estimate that just 10 percent of the people victimized by lottery scams report it to police or family members. Many worry the lapse will be seen as evidence they cannot manage their own affairs.

King said he knows of Mainers who have lost a total of more than $1 million. One woman in Eagle Lake lost $700,000. Another in Biddeford lost $80,000 and one in Cape Elizabeth lost $140,000.

As a result, King has become one of the few law enforcement officials in the country who have dedicated themselves to fighting the so-called Jamaican lottery scam.

King joined with officials from FairPoint Communications, which delivers voice and data communications in 18 states, including those in northern New England, at a recent forum in New Kingston, Jamaica about strategies to combat the scam.

He also traveled with FairPoint President Michael Smith to Washington D.C. Wednesday and Thursday to meet with members of the Justice department, AARP and representatives and senators from the three northern New England states to look for allies in the fight.

"You feel helpless," King said. "I've been in law enforcement my whole life. When somebody comes to you as a victim of a crime, I just don't accept there's nothing we can do."

FairPoint officials say the scams seem to be concentrated in northern New England, after hearing from family members about relatives who have been conned out of their life savings.

"These are our customers. We should be protecting our customers," said spokesman Jeff Nevins.

"We felt they were targeting Northern New England. We have one of the oldest populations up here in all three states."

A statement from Rep. Mike Michaud said he has secured a commitment from the Federal Trade Commission, which collects complaints about fraud and identity theft, to hold a forum in Maine next year on the issue and what Mainers can do to protect themselves and family members.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins indicated the issue could also merit congressional hearings, King said.

The York County Sheriff's Office in 2011 was alerted to a woman in Arundel who was being victimized, he recalled. While she insisted she was on her way to winning millions, she agreed to allow sheriff's deputies to record the conversations, giving them hours of recordings and insight into how such scammers work.

Now, when FairPoint receives calls from customers about the scam, they refer them to King.

"I've spoken to people from Louisiana, Texas, throughout the country, just to provide a little bit of moral support to say they are not alone. It's almost therapeutic," he said.

In one case, family members asked him to call an older relative who still believed he was in line to win big and wouldn't listen to skeptical family members.

(Continued on page 2)

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