News

Lotto scammers living large

Con artists earn US$120,000 weekly, wash their cars with Champagne, stage money-burning contests

BY KARYL WALKER Observer online news editor walkerk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, May 13, 2012    

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LOTTERY scammers are living high on the hog, earning millions of Jamaican dollars a week and using Champagne to wash their cars in a boastful lifestyle reflecting the ease with which they come by their ill-gotten gains, police from the Organised Crime Investigation Division (OCID) have reported.

"They literally burn money. There is a competition to see who can burn the most money. They use Champagne to wash their cars. We know of one scammer who owns seven posh houses," head of OCID, Senior Superintendent Fitz Bailey, said in an address to the Jamaica Observer Press Club last week.

Bailey also said that his team had seized a Lexus motor car that was in the possession of an 18-year-old.

Anyone armed with a 4G modem, a cellular phone and a computer phone jack can earn a whopping US$120,000 or J$10.2 million a week in the illegal venture commonly known as the 'lotto' scam.

It's easy money for little effort on the part of the 'scammers', who the police say are generally young, tech-savvy, and freely spend their ill-gained wealth.

'Lotto' scamming, is a multimillion-dollar transnational crime. It involves local scammers who have close associates in North America -- mostly in the United States -- who supply the scammers with what is known as "lead lists".

A lead list is recorded information that commercial businesses harvest and archive from customers who use their credit cards to make purchases. Sometimes, lead lists are created when customers voluntarily supply information to sign up for discounts, promotions, or loyalty cards.

The lead list is the key element of the scam, says Bailey, because without it scammers would go hungry.

Despite the common belief that most victims of the lottery scam are just easily suckered, it is the lead list that allows the scammer access to legitimate personal information about the person being targeted, enabling them to sell convincing stories of massive winnings to the hapless victims.

The information on a lead list, therefore, often includes the time, date and location of purchases, the personal data of the cardholder such as name, home and e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, and even information about next of kin, household income and spending trends.

Bailey explained that the 'lotto' scam has mushroomed over the last five years, and added that its growth coincided with efforts by the security forces to clamp down on the illegal drug trade, particularly in St James.

According to him, the arrests and extradition of Norris 'Deedo' Nembhard, Clive 'Plucky' Williams, Leebert Ramcharan, Glenford Williams, Vivian Dalley, former police corporal Herbert 'Scarry' Henry and other accused major players in the trade of illicit drugs created an economic void in western Jamaica which afforded a loophole which, in turn, allowed the lottery scam to emerge.

The growth of the telemarketing sector in Montego Bay, St James also facilitated the burgeoning and immensely lucrative scheme.

"There was a 'lotto' scammer who got $800 million from the scam, almost a billion dollars. He was killed by his relative over the money," Bailey said.

There are communities across the island, such as in Mandeville and Montego Bay, where, he said, you can pick out homes acquired with lottery scam cash because they are so ostentatious.

He noted that some persons have even left their legitimate jobs where they were earning decent wages to take up the lottery con game.

Some, the OCID chief said, also see the scheme as relatively harmless because it doesn't directly involve the use of guns, at least not at the soliciting stage. Bailey also pointed to what seems to be a psychological position among scammers that it is merely payback for the perceived wrongs of slavery and racism.

Bailey said he has no doubt that the lottery scam is supporting organised crime.

"The scammers, they need protection, so there is no doubt that they use a portion of their ill-gotten gains, either to purchase guns or to pay for protection. When the Stonecrusher gang was very active, that gang was supported from the proceeds of the lottery scam. So we have no doubt it is funding other illicit activities," he said.

In 2010, scammers bilked a whopping US$30 million from hapless targets in the state of Minnesota alone.

Between 2007, when the scam started, and 2009 local cops confiscated US$283,000 in cash, and since February this year J$3 million in cash has been taken out of criminal hands connected to the scheme. The police have also seized 40 high-end luxury vehicles and detained 102 persons, most of them below the age of 30.

"We have arrested 16- and 17-year-olds. Imagine, a 20-year-old who owns all these expensive assets and can't account for them. There was one who got someone from Italy to design their house," Bailey said.

A Sunday Observer source in Montego Bay also revealed that at one stage the police arrested a 15-year-old boy who owned at least three houses and three motor cars from the lotto scam, yet he was unable to read or write.

According to Bailey, most victims are retirees. Some suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Some have been purchasing lottery and powerball tickets all their life without success, so when news finally comes that they have struck it rich, they have no problem forwarding so-called 'registration fees' as demanded by the con artists.

In January last year, Mary Kubalak, an elderly widow of Pembroke Pines in South Florida, wired nearly $400,000 to a scammer in Jamaica.

Just last week, an Illinois family rued that their mother had been duped, and wouldn't believe them when they tried to tell her she was being taken for a ride. The family complained to police that every day the Jamaican scammers would call and promise that they were trying to hand-deliver her cheque, but their car kept breaking down, and they needed money for repairs.

Another Illinois woman sent US$20,000 before she realised she was being duped.

These elderly persons are just a drop in the bucket of hundreds of American senior citizens who are conned out of a whopping US$300 million annually, US authorities have reported.

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