Are the roots of lottery scamming in our culture?

Are the roots of lottery scamming in our culture?

Donna P

Thursday, January 23, 2020

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The first time I ever came in contact with any form of scamming was during one of my infrequent trips to New York, USA, in the early 1990s. Some of my friends had migrated — or run off — to the US and were figuring out their immigration status while hustling away in Brooklyn or The Bronx. One such friend explained that a planned shopping trip was imminent because of “a new credit card” that had been acquired from “the credit card guy” for US$50 with a spending limit of US$500. I did not understand.

Back then ordinary Jamaicans did not have credit cards. We saw them in movies and marvelled at how 'rich' these people were that they could simply run a card and buy anything they needed. My friend explained that this new credit card was part of an underground industry in which individuals would purchase credit cards and use them to acquire various niceties at the expense of others. I was horrified. How could you? Isn't that stealing? I was informed that this wasn't something bad, it was really about taking funds from those who had too much; for example, one of those “rich, old white women up North”. “But if I migrate to the US I would eventually have cards just like those,” I insisted. “You could be stealing from me!” The thought had never crossed my friend's mind.

Today, credit cards, digital money, the Internet, and other related technologies are commonplace and credit card and lottery scamming are also part and parcel of the Jamaican reality. Jamaica has made headlines, news stories, and various features locally and internationally as the home of lottery scamming. Western Jamaica has been made notorious for lottery-scamming activities. But what exactly is at the heart of this explosion in lottery scamming and its close sibling, credit card scamming? Is it really true that dancehall is the cause, as a former minister of national security suggested to a group of Canadian-Jamaicans several years ago?

Lottery scamming is a close relative to other forms of con artistry and trickery that is based on the psychology of persuasion. The con artist uses a variety of strategies to gain the confidence of the target and persuade them to engage in specific actions. Often there are specific triggers that are selected based on the con artist's understanding of the desires and/or interests of that individual. If successful, the con artist can exert his/her influence over the target and manipulate their responses and behaviour.

Lotto scammers can be likened to skilled marketers who are able to persuade individuals to part with their money for the promise of some benefit. The rise of the early business process outsourcing firms in western Jamaica, in particular the call centres, coupled with increased democratic expansion of Jamaica's telephone networks, served as catalysts for the development of this sophisticated criminal network on the back of supportive historical, cultural, and social facets that already existed.

A key historical underpinning is the celebration of Anancy as an important figure in Jamaican history and culture. I have never been fond of him because all the stories I heard about Anancy were of his use of trickery to steal from his wife, children and friends. Every time I related an Anancy story I would lodge a caveat about these activities. Whatever happened to him along the Middle Passage, Anancy came to Jamaica from Africa as a con man. That trickster ethos, sometimes couched as a type of Robin Hood behaviour where you rob from the rich to give to the poor, continues to be celebrated in Jamaica. Its connection to capitalist-induced greed in this era means that the trickster imperative is socially supported, even though theft is a criminal act.

Another important cultural facet is the fact that Jamaicans are lyrical geniuses. The politician, pastor and artistes are three prominent forms of male identity whose popularity and prowess in Jamaica are based first on their use of words to connect with their audience, win their support, and convince them to engage in an activity of some sort. Indeed, ordinary Jamaican men are renowned for using only their lyrics to win a love interest, and stories abound about those who wrote letters and won the hearts of women in distant countries. Today, the telephone, Internet, WhatsApp, and other forms of social media provide unlimited access into the homes, hearts, and minds of those who can be wooed and convinced that it is in their best interest to part with their money. This ability to persuade with words continues to be a very crucial weapon in the arsenal of lotto scammers, especially when the target is not Jamaican, and the tricksters are trained and hold key personal and private information about their victims.

Many of us receive e-mail regularly telling us we have won millions of pounds or US dollars, or that someone wants to share an enormous fortune found in a vault with us. Others get phone calls promising riches after responding with the correct information, and paying a fee. Most Jamaicans do not believe these hooks, and few respond. But, using the “lead lists” gleaned from various telemarketing and other sources, lottery scammers successfully target vulnerable individuals in the USA, where it is more plausible that you could win a prize or be entered into a sweepstakes because you purchased an item at a particular store or dealership. Or, that if you won a prize in the sweepstakes some kind of fee would be necessary for administrative costs and to secure your winnings.

So how did it all come together? In a 2013 article on scamming Dr Damion Blake et al highlighted the Nigerian connection that was instrumental in showing Jamaicans in the West how to operate this predatory business model, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s when “…four Nigerians operated the scamming business from Montego Bay. The Nigerians were later deported and $1.4 [million] returned to scammed victims; but by then they had interfaced with many Jamaicans who were introduced into the activities. Both police officers contended that when the matter came up in 1998, it was because of 15 complaints made by people in America whom claimed that they had won Australian Sweepstake from a Jamaican area code and were experiencing [challenges collecting] their prized money”. Many have laughed and poked fun at those who are conned out of their valuables, but display shock and horror when the lottery scamming exploded as a multimillion-dollar network, complete with gun-toting enforcers and personal bodyguards on the ground, and the succeeding waves of violence and murders that usually follow large sums of illegal monies in these networks.

The connections between scamming as a criminal activity and the rise of gangs and networks of violence are well-documented. Since the turn of the millennium, gang-related warfare and murders in the west, in particular St James, have kept the Government and security forces on their toes from as early as 2002. Violent crimes and gang warfare resulted in a peak in murders in St James, and in the 2015-2017 period murders moved from a staggering 212 to 369 in that parish alone. The introduction of the state of emergency initiative in January 2018 was one strategy to stem these activities. Yet, even with the introduction of new banking restrictions to hamper the flow of large sums of cash into the formal structures, arrests of various masterminds, increased police presence, and assistance from external sources, the multimillion-dollar fortunes that continue to accrue from the lottery scamming activities, as well as the flashy, well-resourced lifestyles it has bestowed on their peers, are incentives for many who see other options for employment as non-viable dead ends that promise them marginalised and hopeless futures. Indeed, the significant inroads into the lottery-scamming industry came almost a decade after the solidification of its various planks upon the supportive historical, social, and cultural networks that continue to energise this industry. The rise in crime, especially murders, in western Jamaica and its immediate environs, is directly connected to this cash-ridden industry that pulls many young, and not-so-young Jamaicans into its promise of overnight wealth complete with flashy symbols of success. Additionally, globalisation has made the world smaller and removed barriers that once restricted the movement of goods, services, ideas, money, and contraband across multiple borders. This all means that there is a great deal more work to be done before we can fully dismantle this strand in the interconnected web of crime and violence that continues to plague our society.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or

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