The feds are cracking down on Jamaican lottery scams, which bilked Americans out of more than $30 million last year, authorities said Tuesday.
The brazen con artists are transforming the tropical getaway into a fraudsters paradise — pulling in untraceable cash to finance the drug and gun trades with impunity, officials said.
"It's just an incredible amount of money that's coming down here," said Vance Callender, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston.
"We've got cases from Honolulu to Maine."
Law enforcement hopes to change that, announcing a joint task force with the Jamaican government to break up the schemes.
The scams work like this: A caller says you've won millions in an overseas lottery, but he needs you to wire a few hundred dollars to cover the taxes. Payments only lead to other requests for money.
As victims try to recover losses, scammers even pose as police, saying they need more cash to aid the investigation.
Some have lost their life savings — like Ann Mowle, a 72-year-old retired bookkeeper from Monroe, N.J., who committed suicide in 2007 after reportedly losing $248,000 to a Jamaican lottery racket.
New Jersey police warned Mowle she was being taken, and even tried to scare off the scammers by phone — but they just laughed.
A college graduate who raised three children, Mowle was humiliated when she finally realized no one was coming to her door with a $2.5 million check — and she threw herself into the ocean.
The Jamaican scams, which are similar to Nigerian lottery swindles, have grown dramatically over the past two years, mainly targeting marks in the U.S.
The new task force will seek extradition of key suspects for trial in the U.S., Callender said. It will also try to return money to victims from cash seized as it comes into Jamaica and by liquidating criminal assets.
U.S. agents already have started intercepting payments from victims, according to Callender.
He said $30 million is a conservative estimate of how much Jamaican scammers stole from Americans last year. Some of the victims wind up in dire straits.
Callender said he met earlier this month with a Houston man in his 80s whose wife threatened to divorce him unless he stopped wiring money to Jamaica.
The man, who did not want to be identified, has lost $121,000 — nearly all of the couple's savings — and they are now getting by on his wife's meager salary and his Social Security benefits.