Chief Deputy William L. King Jr. of the York County Sheriff’s Office is about as outspoken as they come when it comes to one particular scam – the Jamaican Lottery.
According to King, Mainers have been scammed out of thousands of dollars by an underworld network of thieves operating out of Jamaica, using telephones and computers and a neat little hole in international communications that is found in area code 876.
That area code is for Jamaica, an international call, but to unsuspecting victims of the Jamaican Lottery scam, the number of their caller ID looks as if it originated in the U.S.
The scam goes like this: You get a call from a sincere young man who says you have won millions in a lottery. Sometimes they throw in a BMW as part of the winnings. All you have to do to claim the prize is purchase a prepaid credit card with $500 (or some larger sum) and give them the number on the card when they call back. Then you have your prize money and your car will be delivered.
Meanwhile, the card is emptied of the cash. Then they call back and ask for more money, using any number of different stories to justify the additional expense.
King admits his frustration with federal law enforcement authorities for their failure to move forward on what amounts to an international crime. He finally gave up on law enforcement and joined a growing public awareness campaign that included working with Fairpoint Communications, one of the state’s largest telephone providers, which was losing money with all the customer complaints about the high cost of calls to what appeared to be a U.S. telephone exchange.
The publicity about the scam, which included a television special hosted by Dan Rather, resulted in a Senate hearing that included Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. A major consequence of the hearing was passage in March of harsh criminal penalties by the Jamaican Parliament and a commitment by U.S. authorities to go after the gangs.
King has logged many miles traveling around to speak on the topic. He is trying to recruit adult children to keep an eye on their parents, as well as raising the general awareness of people about these schemes, which includes a variation that involves the cash purchase of gold.
The victims are told not to tell anyone about the lottery prize until they receive it, but there are signs to look for in their behavior, King said. These include an increased sense of urgency or tension in the elderly relative, guarded answers to questions about finances and the sudden presence of prepaid credit cards in their home.
He cited several examples of people who have lost more than $100,000 to the scammers, whom he describes as “very savvy, sophisticated professionals.”
People are more easily hooked on these scams than we like to think, King said, noting that the victims are not stupid people. He also mentioned the research that suggests a decline in risk aversion as we get older.
“They tend not to believe that anyone would be dishonest to them,” he said.
Judith M. Shaw, administrator of the Maine Office of Securities, said that isolation can play a big role in a scam’s success. She cited the case of a man who was advised to put his number on a do-not-call list, but he objected “because that was the only call he got.”
– Rik O’Neal