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

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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

U.S. law enforcement agencies do not have arrest authority in Jamaica. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations division has assisted with at least 20 arrests in Jamaica since March -- a figure that officials said spoke to the cross-border collaboration on the crimes.

"Our role in countries where we have special agents assigned is to have boots-on-the-ground liaisons who can assist the host nation with investigations," Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokeswoman, wrote in response to questions about recent arrests. "The majority of these criminals operate in Jamaica, and we continue to support the (Jamaican Constabulary Force) in arresting and prosecuting fraudsters at every level of these organizations."

Additionally, there has been a handful of arrests and prosecutions in the U.S., including at least one linked to money stolen from Mainers.

In June, Jamaican national Damion Aljunior Hill was arrested in Gulfport, Miss., and charged with wire fraud for transferring money from women in Maine and Nebraska to Jamaica using Green Dot MoneyPak debit cards, a common technique. Members of the Bath Police Department and the Maine Attorney General's Office worked with their counterparts in Mississippi to locate and arrest Hill.

An elderly Georgia woman, Joanne McCrary, who started as a lottery scam victim, also was charged last month with felony money laundering for allegedly receiving Social Security checks from other victims and sending the money to Jamaica.

Arguably the biggest development came last month when 28-year-old O'Brain Junior Lynch became the first Jamaican national to be prosecuted in the U.S. in connection with the scams. Lynch, who is facing up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, was arrested before the March hearing after a joint investigation by the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and Homeland Security Investigations.

But those several dozen arrests in Jamaica and the U.S. likely represent a small percentage of the people involved in a criminal enterprise estimated to bring in $300 million a year to the crime rings in Jamaica.

Not everything is progressing as quickly as the aging committee chairman, Sen. Bill Nelson, had hoped, however.

"Not a single bad guy has been extradited yet," said Nelson, D-Fla., who along with Collins called for extraditions during the March hearing. "I intend to keep pressing the authorities to bring some of these crooks here to the U.S. to face charges. Extraditing them will send a strong signal that we have absolutely zero tolerance for this."

"That is something we are going to keep an eye on to see whether more needs to be done," Collins said.

Bennett said ICE does not comment on pending extraditions.

There is no way to definitively say whether the police and media attention has had an impact on the scope of the lottery scams. Officials estimate that as many as 30,000 scam-related calls are placed to the U.S. from Jamaica per day, according to figures provided at the March hearing.

In Maine, at least, there is some cause for guarded optimism. The number of calls to the York County Sheriff's Office and FairPoint Communications -- the state's largest telephone provider -- from Maine victims or their family members appears to have dropped.

"It has appeared to slow down, but I'm reluctant to say we put a dent in it," said King, who testified during the March hearing. "I would still like to see some federal agency say, 'We've got it.'"

Jeff Nevins, a spokesman for FairPoint, said his company has received fewer referrals for assistance from Maine. But the company, which operates a website, www.bewareof876.com, still receives calls or emails from frustrated family members of victims living in other states, which tells Nevins that the scammers are still working the phones.

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