BY INGRID BROWN Associate Editor — Special Assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
United States lawmakers yesterday pushed for lottery scammers to be extradited to that country to stand trial for defrauding Americans of millions of dollars, and chided Jamaica for not having acted sooner to address the problem during a damaging congressional hearing on the matter.
"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 hearing of the US Senate Special Committee on Ageing in Washington.
Collins, who is the top-ranking Republican on the committee, said she was deeply troubled by what she portrayed as a lack of urgency from both the US and Jamaican authorities in tackling the issue.
Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the committee, also made a similar call.
"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," he said.
Kim Nichols of Hermon, whose father sent $85,000 to scammers, and Chief Deputy William King of the York County Sheriff's Office, who has led efforts to fight the scam in Maine, gave damning testimony to the hearing.
They painted a picture of Jamaican scammers who call mainly seniors and inform them that they won a sweepstakes prize, the lottery or a new car. After repeated calls, the scammers convince their victims to pay an initial fee to cover taxes or costs. They then continue to extort money from the victims, often with harassing and threatening calls several times per day.
Yesterday, in Kingston, the Jamaica Government said its written submission to the congressional hearing was not a last-minute effort at damage control from recent negative media reports, but a continuation of its efforts to stem the fraud.
Information Minister Senator Sandrea Falconer said this Administration had began work in the US long before Security Minister Peter Bunting's visit to Washington on Sunday to meet with the lawmakers, ahead of delivering the written submission to the hearing.
"We had persons working on the ground, including setting up a website to show persons in the US and give them tips on how not to be conned by these fraudsters," Falconer told journalists at the weekly Jamaica House press briefing held at the Office of the Prime Minister.
She was responding to a question about the release issued on Tuesday by Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, who charged that Government ministers Bunting and Julian Robinson's trip to the US was a last-minute, ad-hoc response to the airing of a report by American journalist Dan Rather on the lottery scam. Holness also said that the last-minute trip to Washington was evidence of a weak and negligent Government which fails or refuses to plan.
But Falconer dismissed Holness's claims, and pointed out that Bunting was not only able to deliver a formal written submission to the Senate hearing, but also met with senators Nelson and Collins to personally assure them of Jamaica's determination to combat and eradicate the scam.
She said he also met with key staffers of six other senators on the committee to update them on what Jamaica has been doing over the last year.
"One of the questions Minister Bunting is being asked on this trip is why Jamaica took so long to deal with the lottery scam," Falconer said.
She added further that, although talk of the scam began six years ago, the major measures to combat it were undertaken only last year.
"There were rumblings from 2007 that we had a problem and nothing was done. The most intense campaign against the lottery scam started in 2012 when we took office. Minister Bunting went on the offensive against lottery scammers," Falconer said.
As for Robinson, junior minister in the Ministry of Technology and chairman of the anti-lottery scam inter-ministerial committee, Falconer said he was in the US on another matter but used the opportunity to conduct a number of television and radio interviews.
Additionally, she said, Bunting, Justice Minister Mark Golding, Police Commissioner Owen Ellington, and Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn had made an earlier trip to Washington to address a think tank which included representatives from the private sector, remittance and telecommunication companies, academia, senate staffers, and members of the media.
Pointing to the other measures Jamaica has undertaken to address the scam, Falconer said a five-point plan was rolled out and this included public education, increased enforcement, laws creating new offences, strengthened judicial and procedural rules, and restitution for victims.
Pointing to the Fraudulent Transaction Special Provisions Act 2013, which was passed in the Senate last week, Falconer said this is designed to crack down on individuals who use lottery scams to prey on vulnerable persons.
The new measures, she added, also provide for sanctions to punish persons who aid and abet perpetrators of these unlawful schemes.
A recent amendment to Jamaica Evidence Act, the minister said, allows for victims of certain types of crimes, both in Jamaica and in the US, to give anonymous testimony by video, thus eliminating the need to travel to Jamaica.
"We also have established an anti-lottery scam police task force to ensure we devote some of our best resources in targeting these fraudulent activities, and that task force has made significant inroads carrying out nearly 40 major operations and seriously disrupting several criminal networks engaged in scamming," Falconer reported.