MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — The 88-year-old retired Coast Guard officer hadn't been outside the U.S. in decades. Yet phone calls started pouring in from Jamaica, dangling the prospects of huge winnings from an international lottery that he had won.
There was a catch, of course. He had to send a check to pay the tax on his winnings. He wired the money to Jamaica. Soon he was ensnared in a scam that may cost him his home in an assisted living facility outside Seattle.
"It's been heartbreaking," said Ruth Wilson, a Seattle woman trying to clean up the financial fiasco that she said has cost her frail parents about $250,000, nearly all of their retirement savings.
U.S. officials say that is just a tiny fraction that cross-border lottery frauds haul in each year, disproportionately from the elderly. The schemes are so entrenched in Jamaica that some American police departments have begun warning elderly residents to be wary of calls from Jamaica's 876 telephone code, which resembles the three-digit area codes used in the United States.
"These scammers are very persistent and in some cases verbally abusive, threatening to harm victims if they do not send money," said Maj. Bill King of Maine's York County Sheriff's Office, which late last month launched a campaign called "Beware: Scams from Area Code 876."
Police on the Caribbean island say there are visible signs of the fraud-spawned riches in the hot spot for the gangs, St. James parish, where some twentysomething Jamaicans from modest backgrounds are living very well for people without any obvious job or source of income. Three-story concrete mansions and luxury cars have increasingly popped up in the parish, which includes the resort city of Montego Bay.
The Jamaican and U.S. governments set up a task force three years ago to tackle the crime. But, if anything, the problem only seems to have gotten worse in Jamaica, where organized, violent gangs are deeply entrenched
Complaints from American citizens about Jamaican lottery fraud soared from 1,867 in 2007 to about 30,000 last year, and most incidents go unreported out of fear or embarrassment, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
The task force, led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has conducted about 400 investigations and made roughly 115 arrests. U.S. officials say they are receiving cooperation from the Jamaican government, but cases are progressing slowly.
"We have a massive, massive problem and everyone knows it," said C. Steven Baker, the FTC's Midwest Region director based in Chicago who estimates Jamaica's relentless scammers could be bilking Americans out of $1 billion a year, if not more.
Researchers say lottery and sweepstakes fraud is vastly underreported, estimating up to 92 percent of victims stay silent, so exact figures are impossible to tally. But even the most conservative estimates put the yearly take from Jamaican scams at $300 million, up from about $30 million three years ago.
Lottery fraud is an old crime but experts say threats and harassment are what separates Jamaican scammers from other transnational telemarketing schemes based in countries like Canada, Costa Rica and Spain.
Jamaican gangsters, using fake identities and disposable cellphones that can't be traced, have put a scary twist on the con. Some have threatened to burn down elderly victims' homes if they don't keep the money coming. Investigators say some senior citizens have been told their grandchildren would be raped unless they wired payments.
"I think (victims) get to the point where they're giving the money out because they're afraid not to," said Doug Shadel, a Seattle-based AARP expert on fraud schemes and the elderly. "Once you interact with these people they just will not let you go."
A common trick is to describe the victim's home via imagery available through Google Earth. Anguished senior citizens who have no inkling of that computer technology are convinced they are being watched.
Here's generally how it starts: Scammers inform their targets they have won an overseas lottery or sweepstakes but first need to make tax payments to obtain the prizes. Some people are victimized because they appear on "sucker lists" of people who have been defrauded or targeted by criminal telemarketers in the past. The lists are created, bought and sold by the con artists. Cold calls and direct mail promising lottery winnings lure new victims.
The scammers build trust and rapport with their targets. But payments lead to only more requests for money. Swindlers often instruct elderly victims not to tell bank tellers or relatives the reasons for their withdrawals, warning it will ruin their chances to collect winnings.
Once a victim stops sending money, the threats start and demands for money become relentless.
Wilson said her elderly father became so enmeshed with the fraud artists that he even followed their instructions to buy a new phone and block his daughters from calling him. Meanwhile, the cheats pressured him to wire money and provide passwords for all his accounts.
If victims try to recover losses, the Jamaican cheats sometimes even pose as investigators and ask for more money, saying they need payments to help collect evidence on the criminals.
The U.S.-Jamaica task force, dubbed Jamaica Operations Linked to Telemarketing, or JOLT, has seized only $1.1 million since it began in 2009, said Rex Setzer, section chief of the ICE unit that oversees the effort.
Setzer said U.S. task force members and many Jamaican police are doing their best, but a scarcity of crime-fighting technology in Jamaica, lengthy court delays and strict rules of evidence are hindering their efforts.
"Everybody's hands are tied with the system down there," Setzer said from Washington.
Law enforcement officials find the transnational scams among the hardest crimes to investigate and prosecute because there is usually no paper trail and no face-to-face interaction.
In recent weeks, Jamaican police have reported an uptick in seizures and arrests, including last month's detention of 22 suspected scammers after raids of eight homes in St. James. But law enforcers acknowledge recent successes have done little against the scale of the problem.
Senior police commanders and ICE officials say the lottery scams in Jamaica range from gang-led "boiler room" operations with multiple people making calls down to one-man shops. Competition for the sucker lists is so intense that police believe that lottery fraud rings are behind 40 percent of the homicides in St. James.
"Jamaica is getting a very bad reputation abroad as a nation of scammers," Police Commissioner Owen Ellington said.
Generally, individuals report losing more than $100,000, said U.S. Postal Inspector Bladismir Rojo, who is battling the frauds from South Florida.
Some people have lost their life savings. Among them was Ann Mowle, a 72-year-old retired bookkeeper in Monroe, New Jersey, who killed herself in 2007 after reportedly losing $248,000 to a Jamaican lottery fraud.
"It's hard to profile the victims on what kind of job they did or what kind of education they had and all that. I think it's more ... being alone, having someone on the phone, just the vulnerability," Rojo said.
Wilson, who has filed a complaint with Washington's attorney general, is trying to get her father's money back to support her elderly parents' retirement, but few victims ever see a dime. She thinks she will soon need to move them to a cheaper assisted living facility. She asked that her father's name not be published to avoid helping the swindlers steal the small amount of savings he has left.
During a brief phone call, her father said he has been through a dizzying and demoralizing time since being sucked into the scam, which started with a post card announcing he had won an international lottery.
"I have a tough time swallowing that I bought the damn stories to start with," he said in his apartment, its walls decorated with photographs of the ships he served on during his Coast Guard career. "It was hard getting out of it."