July 22, 2013

Crackdown on Jamaica scams has timid start

Despite laws and some arrests, no suspects have been extradited and deterrence is questionable.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - Under pressure to take more aggressive action, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Jamaica have arrested dozens of people linked to sophisticated international lottery scams that have shattered the lives of senior citizens in Maine and across the country.

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, talks with Hermon resident Kim Nichols, left, before a March hearing of the Senate Special Committee on Aging about lottery scams targeting senior citizens. Nichols’ father, who lives in New Hampshire, lost $85,000 to the Jamaica-based scammers.

U.S. Senate Photographic Studio

But Jamaican officials have yet to hand over any suspects to the U.S. for prosecution, four months after leading senators from Maine and Florida called for extraditions during a congressional hearing.

Maine police and telephone company representatives, meanwhile, said that despite progress on some fronts, they remain frustrated that more federal resources aren't flowing to assist the families who call them desperately seeking help.

"I still don't see a concerted federal effort. I still don't see anyone taking the lead on it," said Chief Deputy Bill King of the York County Sheriff's Office, who has taken the lead in investigating the crimes in Maine.

American citizens lose untold billions of dollars every year to all sorts of fraudulent schemes, yet the so-called "Jamaican lottery scam" has proven especially effective.

Elderly victims are lured into believing they have won the lottery or an expensive car but must pay an initial fee or tax to claim the winnings. The scammers -- many of them trained telemarketers calling from Jamaica's area code, 876 -- use charm and eventually nonstop harassment or threats of violence to coerce increasingly distraught victims to spend their life savings to claim a prize that does not exist.

King estimates that among the roughly 200 cases he has documented in Maine -- a figure that is likely a fraction of the actual number -- the average loss was between $60,000 and $70,000.

In mid-March, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a high-profile hearing on the scams, which have grown so large and profitable in Jamaica that many are now run by violent gangs. Maine Sen. Susan Collins -- the panel's top-ranking Republican -- was a driving force behind the hearing after receiving complaints from King, FairPoint Communications and frustrated family members of victims.

Two weeks after the hearing, the Jamaican Parliament passed a law making fraud schemes like the lottery scam criminal offenses punishable by 25 years in prison and potential extradition to the U.S. for prosecution. At the time, Jamaican officials expressed serious concerns about the scams scarring the reputation of the tourism-dependent Caribbean nation.

"It's a major change in Jamaican law because it criminalizes the lottery scam, and that will facilitate efforts to extradite," Collins said in an interview. "For many years, Jamaican authorities turned a blind eye to this ... and the fact that the Jamaican government passed this tough new law targeting these scams is a direct result of the hearing we held, the public outcry about these scams and the embarrassment it caused the Jamaican government."

Jamaican authorities insisted they are putting the new law to work.

The island's organized crime and lottery scam task forces have arrested 32 people, 27 of whom have been charged with possession of paraphernalia related to the lottery scams, according to statistics supplied by the Jamaican Ministry of Justice. Paraphernalia can include valuable "contact sheets" with victims' names, as well as cellphones or computer equipment used in the operations.

Damian Wilson, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said those 27 cases are still making their way through the court system. But Wilson said that since March, Parliament also has passed laws allowing for the forfeiture of all assets gained from the scams and to allow witnesses in court trials to testify via video-conferencing -- something U.S. officials have requested.

"The Ministry of Justice is satisfied that the legislation ... provides a robust legal framework to hold offenders accountable for the crimes involved in this scam," Wilson wrote to the Portland Press Herald.

(Continued on page 2)

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