Thursday, December 5, 2013
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.
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.
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.
Nevins said the hearings held by Nelson and Collins were "absolutely essential in moving this in the right direction." But like King, he wants federal law enforcement agencies to offer more help to victims and their families.
"The arrests are a big step in the right direction, but there is still not enough (federal) emphasis on this," Nevins said. "There needs to be one place where people can call. That continues to be the problem: Where do you tell people to go? Who is going to take these cases and run with them?"
In 2009, ICE formed a joint task force -- known as Project JOLT (Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing) -- with agencies in the U.S. and Jamaica. At the March hearing, an ICE official testified that Project JOLT had resulted in 10 indictments, six convictions and the seizure of $1.2 million.
"The ICE-led JOLT task force continues to meet with our Jamaican partners to discuss ongoing trends and to share information," said Bennett, the ICE spokeswoman. "We are also assisting Jamaican law enforcement by providing training and guidance with financial crimes investigations."
Collins said she has been in contact with the director of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General's Office to discuss complaints that lottery scam cases were not being followed. Overall, however, Collins said she has noticed progress since March.
"The level of activity is far higher than it had ever been before. It doesn't mean that it is perfect," she said.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: