Columns

Lottery scam has enriched a few and destroyed the vulnerable

MARK WIGNALL

Sunday, June 01, 2014    

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IT was in the late 1990s that someone first attempted a scam via e-mail with me. The e-mail said that I was selected in an Internet lottery and had won a two-week Caribbean cruise for two. A phone number was given.

I called the number genuinely believing the e-mail. I gave the sweetly sounding female voice which answered my name and told her what it was about. "Is this genuine?" I asked.

"Oh, very definitely, sir. Would you like to speak to one of our supervisors?" she said.

As I was connected a male voice said, "Are you seeking clarification on the trip or are you telling us that you won't be able to make it?" Then I heard voices in the background as one would hear in an office setting. "Hold a minute, our manager is here, I'll let you speak with him."

In about a minute I was connected to another male voice. The man sounded 'important' and convincing, as if he had a thousand things to do. "Yes," he said. I explained to him. In the background I heard him saying, "Is that the Wignall file? Let me have it."

I waited for a few seconds then he said, "What seems to be the problem, sir?" Again, I said I just wanted to know if the trip was genuine. He told me it was and mine was just one of hundreds that they process for the year. Then he transferred the call to another 'supervisor'. "Sir, thanks for your enquiry. I just need some processing information. I take it you will be carrying along company, your wife or girlfriend maybe?"

"Yes," I said.

"We have two dates in the coming month," she said. She gave me the options and I settled with the latter. "Now, I will need your full name, the full name of the person you will be taking." I gave her the information.

"I'll need your credit card number, sir."

I wasn't prepared to give any such information to any stranger. "I am sorry, I don't have a credit card," I said.

The line went stone dead.

The first time I was made aware that a lottery scam was on in earnest in Montego Bay was in the early to mid-2000s. In 2006 and 2007 when I was spending time at fancy hotels on the north coast I would leave the luxury of the hotel early in the morning, Chupski fast asleep, and head for the grittiest areas on the periphery of Montego Bay.

Downtown Montego Bay has never been one of my favourite places because it is difficult to navigate by car. If one is not familiar with the one-ways, one will find oneself trapped even while trying to leave to head back out.

In many of the depressed inner-city pockets, one name kept on cropping up and the young men who told me were not even hiding it. People pressed into generational poverty and dense inner-city living where everyone knows everyone else's business eventually develop their own cultural mores.

Abstracting light illegally from JPS is a 'duty', and poor people, they say, must live like anyone else. If a few greedy Americans want to believe the lie that they have won US$5 million in a lottery and they are willing to pay over processing fees in collecting, say US$30,000, then let them pay and let poor black people who are smarter than they are get the benefits.

I had a most difficult time trying to find one who would agree that the practice was wrong, and in any case, I played along so that the information kept flowing.

One young man took me to a small hotel where the parking lot was filled with 'crissas' -- brand new cars. But that was nothing strange on the north coast. What was different was the inside of the hotel (about 20 rooms) at the bar where not one white-skinned person was to be seen.

Now, it is not abnormal for some of the smaller, less upscale hotels to be populated with locals stealing some vacation time on the north coast. But at that bar were men, young men, all in a party mood and most dressed quite effeminate and acting very 'palsy-walsy' with each other.

I left after one drink and wandered down to the beach. There were other men there too, curiously, quite young, in their late teens and early 20s, I would guess. The beach area was filled with jet skis and some of the fellows were riding them wildly and whooping in enjoyment.

As I left, the information I had gathered was that the men were scammers and that they had rented the particular hotel for a whole month!

Taking the Lottery win bait

I must confess that I find it mind-boggling that someone with say, US$200,000 in a bank account could part with $150,000 of it, all in an effort to collect a lottery 'win' of US$5 million. The scammers are quite skilled at what they do once they get the lead lists from their conspirators working close to or who are a part of the US system.

They tend to take the collection in bits and pieces, extending the storyline as it unravels. A banking glitch; US$10,000. A processing complication; US$5,000. A new transfer law just announced; US$15,000 and it goes on and on.

At some stage the person who took the bait is so far into it that the thought of cutting all contact and losing all that had been previously sent fades into insignificance as the psychology drives the focus towards what has to be the ultimate prize -- the US$5 million 'won.' They force themselves into believing that 'the win' must be authentic.

While they send more funds, the local fellows whoop it up and spend in wild abandon.

In 2012 we were told by the head of the Lottery Scam Task Force that the scammers were in retreat as the new law enacted in 2009 had them under serious pressure. The reason I have always had faith that that law would yield results is that Jamaica was twinning its efforts with those of the US law enforcement authorities.

The problem with our policing is oftentimes woeful lack of resources. So the long haul that is required to investigate carefully is sometimes either cut short, and no conviction can come from the arrests. In other words, there is a lot of noise at the stage where suspects are arrested but a silent whoosh when they are freed in the courts.

With the US law enforcement agencies, resources are placed behind investigations and it is not unusual for five years to elapse before a solid case is built. In Jamaica our police do not have the resources to spend over that time.

There is another murder around the corner and there are family members stabbing up each other.

Some years ago, in the mid- to late 1990s, I met a man in a bar in the eastern part of the island. He told me he had wanted to speak with me for some time. Previously he had been involved in a popular local vocation that had corruption as its fellow traveller and he was a main player as a professional in the industry. He told me a story of a time in the 1980s when he was involved in exporting ganja.

It was on a remote beachfront and a line and harness had been arranged. By arrangement, a small two-seater Cessna swooped down and using a hook mechanism snatched the package of compressed weed while dropping a briefcase of cash.

As the plane flew off and he collected his cash, which he placed in the trunk of his car on the beach, suddenly there appeared out of the nearby bushes about 12 policemen. He sat in the car as the policemen approached. Arrogantly he told them to keep out of 'big man business'. He said that the first sign he observed that they were confused was when they began looking at each other and at the boss cop.

They ordered him to exit the car. Again he utilised an arrogant stance, doing so somewhat impatiently. "Is what, onnu want, some cash?" Then he went to the back of the car, opened the trunk and extracted a wad of US bills. As he walked back to the open door of the car, he entered, shut the door, started the engine, threw the cash in the air and drove off.

He told me that it was the funniest sight he ever witnessed as he gazed in his rearview mirror and saw the policemen chasing the cash fluttering in the light wind coming off the sea.

US law enforcement agencies will give you rope to hang yourself

At the time I met him, he said he had been caught abroad by the FBI but had been 'turned', that is, they had made a deal with him, had sent him back home and it was his duty to inform on other players who were exporting weed to the US mainland. For that he was paid US$35,000 per year plus bonuses.

As we spoke he glanced nervously around him. From that time until now I have gathered a fair idea (from the outside, at least) of how the US law enforcement agencies operate with our people.

In, say, the Lottery scam, would it not be plausible for investigators to themselves scam a scammer? It would go something like this. Target the one who is seen as the biggest player. Get him behind closed doors. Show him the hard, damaging evidence you have on him. Point out to him the near impossibility of him escaping extradition and a long sentence in a US prison. Cut a deal with him.

And here is the deal. Continue your scamming, but every now and then give us info on one or two others who are trying to upstage you.

There are, of course, dangers involved. If some of the other players should discover your surreptitious deal, you are as good as dead. If important people who have aligned themselves with you should uncover your 'misdeeds', they may wish to see you dead because the thought of you cutting another deal after extradition will give them sleepless nights.

We can recall the pictures of Dudus when he was captured. He bore a look of relief which said that he dearly wanted to be in the custody of the US authorities. The other look spoke volumes of what he thought would have been his fate had he been taken in alone and locked up for an extended period in a Jamaican jail. Curtains!

The lottery scammers are the easiest people for law enforcement agencies to investigate, build a solid case against, arrest and convict. Why? They live too large.

One youngster who was involved was shot dead at 16 and at that age he was worth J$60 million. The scammers operating on the north coast do not do business in Jamaican dollars. It's the greenback all the way.

I agree that the scammers are on the retreat. They have to be. Too much has happened.

-- observemark@gmail.com

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