WHEN the United States sneezes, the saying goes, we catch a cold; when they catch a cold, we get pneumonia.
We seemed on the verge of pneumonia last week as United States media and legislative leadership focused on Jamaica's lottery scam that has fleeced elderly Americans out of an estimated US$300 million, with apparent impunity, since the mid-2000s.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported 30,000 complaints related to Jamaican lottery scams in 2012. The number of actual victims is likely far higher as the FTC estimates fewer than 10 per cent of victims ever report the crime.
Now, American legislators, responding to the pleas of their constituents and national media attention, are demanding that both US and Jamaican authorities do a lot more to bring the perpetrators of this pernicious predation to book.
Seeking to contain the damage, the Portia Simpson Miller Administration despatched National Security Minister Peter Bunting and junior minister of science, technology, energy, and mining Julian Robinson to explain to US lawmakers that the Government was doing all it could to deal with the issue.
In what looked more like orchestration than coincidence, significant sections of US television media documented details of the scam as the US Senate Special Committee on Ageing initiated public hearings which also produced riveting testimony of threats, intimidation, and heartbreak.
The TV documentaries and testimony recited details of incessant telephone calls — as many as 60 a day to one victim — use of Google Earth technology to describe a senior's neighbourhood and frighten them into paying; using romance to reel in victims, feigning interest in lonely seniors, who pay, in part, to maintain the connection; AND seniors bilked out of their entire life savings.
"For far too long Jamaican authorities turned a blind eye to this fraud, which was illegally bringing an estimated $300 million annually to their economy," US Senator Susan Collins told the hearings. However, she acknowledged that the new Jamaican Administration, "because of the threat to the reputation of the island as a vacation haven", started taking action "to try to crack down and stop these scams".
But the lawmakers want more. Collins and Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the committee, want extraditions. "We want to see them extradited to the US. That will have a chilling effect on a number of these people who think they are bulletproof," Nelson said.
How did we get here; how do we change the direction? These were among the questions swirling in the buzz online and in media commentary all last week.
We got here for several reasons. First, the lottery scam is a relatively easy crime to get into, especially after the Government cracked down on drug traffickers. The perpetrators need only a phone, a computer, and some phone numbers from lead lists or what some scammers call "suckers" lists, originating from the United States and then sold in Jamaica.
These crime tools are facilitated by constant innovation in information and communication technologies (ICTs) and today's networked world that has spawned a massive global increase in cybercrime, identity theft, child pornography and even cyber warfare, among the major industrial nations. Only last week the US and China traded charges of cyber attacks against each other.
Shawn S Tiller, deputy chief inspector, US Postal Inspection Service, said consumer complaints received through a hotline established at his office rank Jamaica 16th as a source country for foreign country sweepstakes and lottery complaints. "They trend significantly behind Canada, Australia, and The Netherlands," Tiller said.
Jamaica's legitimate telemarketing outsourcing industry, centred in Montego Bay, was widely believed to have been a breeding ground for early scammers. "They're trained to get somebody on the telephone, to overcome objections, to create a fantasy," according to a quote attributed to one US law enforcement official.
According to Julian Robinson, the scam has increased the cost of doing business as telemarketing firms have to take extra precautions to protect their data from falling into the hands of scammers.
Second, many people do not consider it criminal, arguing that the victims -- because of greed or stupidity -- are responsible for their own victimisation. How can you pay money to claim a big prize in a lottery in which you did not enter?
Robinson, speaking on Beyond the Headlines Wednesday, suggested that one unintended benefit from the exposure was that Jamaicans now have "a greater appreciation" of the potential damage to the national reputation and economy as well as the extent of the human costs on the victims.
Third, the scam has been beneficial to many people and businesses, especially in and around Montego Bay, if law enforcement agencies and people in the know are to be believed.
The criminals benefit directly; the private sector benefits from monies the scammers spend to buy cars, fancy clothes, construction and building materials, etc; some members of the police are said to benefit from extortion and shaking down scammers; politicians benefit because the flow of easy money into poor, political garrisons is putting less pressure on them to address community needs like roads, water, jobs, and security.
The phenomenon is not dissimilar to the rise and influence of the dons in political garrisons who exercised effective control over entire communities as benefactors and protectors as they engaged in organised crime with impunity.
We can also recall the benign attitude of some of our leading politicians when an earlier PNP Government moved to shut down unauthorised financial schemes which turned out to be Ponzi schemes. By the way, whatever happened to investigations into reports that David Smith's Olint operation contributed millions of dollars to both major political parties?
These and related issues partly explain the less than aggressive approach by the Government and the police in tackling the issue, although it had reached crisis levels from as early as 2008. That has changed now.
Going forward, Government and law enforcement must aggressively move to assure the public that
the "culture of impunity" will not
The Administration is banking on the new Law Reform Fraudulent Transactions Special Provisions Act 2013 (the so-called anti-lottery scam law which went before the Senate Friday but is subject to further review) to help law enforcement agencies catch and punish scammers. It must be enforced and enforced fairly and impartially.
Bunting, speaking on radio Thursday, said he told the commissioner of police that unless they had "compelling" public interest reasons, they should not make an arrest until they had a case that had a reasonable chance of successful prosecution.
And there will be no political cover. He said PNP MPs in St James have been told in the clearest terms that there will be no political protection for any supporter of the party or anyone else.
Finally, extraditions must be an inevitable part of the mix of US-Jamaica co-operation. In a radio interview Thursday, Bunting pointed to the use of extradition of Jamaican narcotics kingpins as an indicator of what may come.
The unpalatable reality is that convictions are more likely to be obtained in the United States because of our creaking criminal justice system which is riddled with delay, and where successful prosecution and conviction of organised crime bosses is the exception rather than the rule.