KINGSTON — Jamaica announced the creation of a government task force to fight proliferating lottery scams that have made the country a center for international telemarketing fraud.
The Jamaican and U.S. governments already have a three-year-old joint task force that has been dealing with the schemes, which mainly target elderly Americans, but the problem has gotten worse.
Julian Robinson, a senior official in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, told reporters the scams will seriously damage the country’s reputation as a tourist destination and business center if they continue.
“The implications of the lotto scam touches and encompasses so many critical areas of our national life,” Robinson said. Other government officials in tourism, investment and foreign affairs, as well as police commanders were present at a news conference when the announcement was made.
Robinson said at least 30,000 calls are made into the U.S. from Jamaica attempting to defraud Americans every day. The United States is Jamaica’s biggest trade partner and source of tourists.
Robinson cited recent media coverage as a reason why the inter-ministerial task force has been set up. His announcement came two days after The Associated Press published a report on the Jamaican scams.
Police on the island say there are very visible signs of the fraud-spawned riches in the hot spot for the gangs, St. James parish, where
a growing number of teenagers and twenty-somethings from modest backgrounds are living very well without any obvious source of income.
Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds said the violent fraud rings are recruiting students out of high schools, some as young as 14. One 15-year-old scammer was able to buy his mother a house and he drove around his community in a luxury car, Hinds said.
The rising economic power of the swindlers is also having a corrupting influence on police, he said.
“Gangs are now contracted to seek out revenge on competitors and in some cases corrupt policemen are also employed to work for and on behalf of the scammers,” Hinds said.
The young Jamaican con artists have become so brazen that they throw lavish street parties, he added. “There are parishes where scammers use champagne to wash their cars and light money as part of their celebrations,” Hinds said.
The Jamaican and U.S. governments set up their joint task force three years ago to combat the scams. But complaints in the U.S. have increased dramatically every year and even the most conservative estimates put the yearly take from Jamaican scams at $300 million, up from about $30 million in 2009.
Hinds said several swindle suspects are expected to be extradited to the U.S. soon but he declined to specify how many. So far, there has not been a single extradition.
The scams started taking off in Jamaica roughly five years ago, at about the same time the island became a regional leader in call centers dedicated to customer service. Since 2006, many of the legitimate call centers have been based in Montego Bay and that is where many of the fraud rings have popped up.
The schemes are so entrenched in Jamaica that some American police departments have started warning vulnerable elderly residents to be wary of calls from Jamaica’s 876 telephone code.