Jamaican scammers reaping millions from senior citizens

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MIAMI, CMC - United States authorities say that millions of dollars, tucked away by senior citizens for their retirement, are now ending up in the pockets of Jamaican crime syndicates. "It is a plague," said US Postal Inspector Bladismir Rojo, adding "when word-of-mouth spreads of free money, there is no way to put it out". Rojo told reporters that lottery frauds, based in Jamaica, have exploded in popularity, with estimates that as much as US$300 million will be bilked from US residents, largely the elderly, this year alone. He said proceeds from the alleged swindles are used to buy guns, drugs and flashy cars in Jamaica, with gang members sometimes fighting and dying over the illicit cash. Rojo said during this month alone, he received separate complaints involving senior citizens in Fort Lauderdale and Aventura, who each lost more than US$50,000 to Jamaican-based lottery scams. Authorities say victims of the frauds have lost homes, maxed out their credit cards and sometimes become targets of physical threats. While there are variations of the scam, the essence is always the same. Victims are informed they have won prizes or money, but to claim their winnings, they need to wire money to cover fees or taxes, Rojo said. He said once victims send money, the telemarketers press them to send more. In extreme cases, authorities say, victims have ended up losing more than US$500,000. Rojo said the telemarketers often disguise their phone numbers to make it look like they are calling from somewhere in the United States. He said sometimes the fraudsters ask for the money to be wired directly to Jamaica, while, at other times, they use middlemen in the United States, or they persuade other victims to act as intermediaries. Complaints regarding Jamaica-based scams have more than doubled in each of the last four years, skyrocketing from 1,867 in 2007 to 21,342 in 2010, according to the US Federal Trade Commission. Law enforcement officials fear the reported complaints may represent only a fraction of the true number of victims. The US immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said it unveiled a task force in May 2009 with the Jamaican Constabulary Force, the nation's police agency, to combat the scams. Project JOLT (Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing) was modeled after a similar effort established more than a decade ago to curb telemarketing fraud from Canada. Carmen Pino, ICE assistant special agent in charge for South Florida, said, in the last three years, US and Jamaican authorities have launched 389 investigations, arrested 111 people in Jamaica and the United States, and seized US$1.13 million in assets. In addition, she said US$251,000 has been returned to US victims. Pino said, in September, US and Jamaican authorities raided 12 locations and arrested 14 people in Montego Bay, the alleged hotbed for the lottery fraud in Jamaica. She also said four Jamaican men living in Pennsylvania were arrested last month, accused of convincing a Kansas man to give them US$25,000 to secure his winnings in the "Mega Million Lottery." Pino said a Deerfield Beach, South Florida man was arrested on November 19 outside his apartment as he waited for a package containing US$9,000 in cash sent by an 88-year-old Kansas man who had been told he had won a US$1 million sweepstakes. The US Postal Inspection Service said Trevor Charles Dolphy, 23, admitted that he was collecting the money for a friend nicknamed "Evil" from Montego Bay. Law enforcement officials say there is a simple rule to remember when it comes to phone calls or mailings involving lotteries. "If someone tells you that you have won a bunch of money, and they need you to pay any money for any reason, it's a fraud," said C. Steven Baker, director of the US Federal Trade Commission's Midwest Region. Baker said nearly 40 per cent of reported victims of lottery scams last year were over the age of 70.
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