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.

That's why phone scammers try to convince victims not to tell their families about the winnings, telling them they can surprise their families with the good news later.

Even when victims change their telephone numbers, more relentless scammers call neighbors, asking them to check on their target, and to bring them a phone so they can talk to them.

In one incident, scammers called a Sabattus woman on the day of her husband's funeral, King said.

In another case, scammers called the Ossippee, N.H. Police Department, feigning concern for their victim and asking that they check on the person, King said.

In other cases, police surmise scammers use Google Earth to find local landmarks as a way of convincing their victims that they are physically close to them, which can also serve as a way to intimidate victims.

FairPoint estimates the number of victims tops 86 in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont and they've received at least 200 complaints from people who were called by scammers.

The utility has worked to spread the word, to educate potential victims and family members, creating a website, www.bewareof876.com, a reference to an area code that handles international calls.

"This thing is devastating to a family," Nevins said, noting that some victims have been hospitalized after falling victim, as well as losing much of their savings.

Jamaican officials estimate some $300 million per year is bilked from trusting elderly Americans by unscrupulous scammers, many based in the resort area of Montego Bay.

Ironically, the Jamaican government invested heavily in promoting call centers there as an economic development engine. Some Jamaicans have used their training in telephone sales techniques to sell the fraud of fake lottery winnings.

The government of the Caribbean island nation has identified what they call lotto scams as a major threat, essentially organized crime, embroiling their youth in a culture of thievery and violence.

"They have 15-year-old kids who are buying houses for their parents with all this money," King said.

Daily murders are blamed at least in part on the illicit enterprise, where rivals compete for territory and for the all important "suckers lists."

"Forty to 50 percent of murders and shootings in St. James are connected to lotto scam activity in one way or another," said Peter Bunting, minister of national security, during the Nov. 7 forum, which was recorded and posted online at: www.jnbs.com/lotteryscam/.

Christopher Tufton, co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy and Research Institute, told the forum that an estimated 30,000 calls a day emanate from Jamaica perpetrating the loan scam.

The government worries that the crime threatens its international reputation, both to prospective investors who might bring legitimate jobs to the island and to tourists, the vast majority of whom come from the United States.

At one point, police there rescued an American who had been lured to the island thinking he was going to claim his prize.

People in Jamaica think of phone scamming as a victimless crime, one reason King felt it was important to travel to Jamaica to share their stories.

"It's not just one person that's victimized. It's everybody," King said. "It's not just a person that's losing money. Now the families are involved," he said, adding that the victims can end up requiring costly public assistance as they get older.

Jamaican officials say they are working with banks and money transfer agencies like Western Union and MoneyGram to stop the fraudulent transfers.

But they can't shut down transfers entirely, because money sent home by the two million to three million Jamaicans living abroad is important to the economy.

Authorities in both countries say legislation could help in the battle.

Jamaican prosecutors want to be able to use video testimony so victims wouldn't need to go to Jamaica to testify. They also want laws that specifically prohibit advanced fee scams.

U.S. authorities want better extradition laws so people perpetrating the scams can be brought to justice in this country.

King said he wants more attention on the problem by federal authorities. In Jamaica, a U.S. customs agent and a postal inspector are the only ones working on it, he said.

"I understand there's a lot of issues (federal authorities) have to deal with," King said. "This is a compelling issue. This is threatening our seniors."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

 

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