Car theft, gang violence, murder, and extortion are all tied to Jamaica‘s extensive web of lottery scams, which robs mainly United States citizens of between $300 million and $1 billion annually. Over the last five years the island nation has seen a dramatic increase in the volume of this type of crime. Along with conning innocent people, such fraud has damaged the country’s reputation and attractiveness as a viable place to set-up BPO operations.
It has robbed the life savings of many people, and given rise to a violent crime wave that has taken the lives of an estimated 700 Jamaicans, and some foreigners – most recently eight-year-old Imani Green, who was visiting from the UK.
Officials, such as Security Minister Peter Bunting, and Julian J. Robinson, state minister in the Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, have put a public face on a government that has been widely criticized by Jamaican citizens for not responding quickly or efficiently to the seriousness of the problem, which threatens to destroy the societal fabric of this country.
Frustration and Legislation
This is especially true in St. James Parish in Western Jamaica, the epicenter of the scamming activity, usually perpetrated by young men recently graduated from high school. Using computers, stolen cell phones, and magicJack connections, the criminals run networks of boiler room-style call centers, targeting victims from a list usually bought from a legitimate provider. Although, Robinson said, the scamming operations started out using lists obtained illegally from BPO operations that the first waves of criminals worked for.
Although he acknowledges the frustration and anger, Robinson points out that the current administration only took office in January 2012 and says that the current government has made progress fighting the lottery scammers over a short period of time. “No one can expect that the problem can be solved in a year,” he said.
Progress has been made as outlined in an official briefing released by the Jamaican Government in December 2012, which states:
“In 2012, the Anti-Lottery Scam initiatives spearheaded by the Ministry of National Security were increased significantly; with the establishment of the Anti-Lotto Scam Task Force in January 2012. The Task Force carried out some 39 major operations last year, which seriously disrupted several criminal networks engaged in scamming. The Task Force recovered lead lists with approximately 1.2 million names; arrested 367 persons; charged some 100 persons for related offences; seized— JM$32.6 million in cash, 121 motor vehicles, 124 computers, 577 cell phones, 30 magic jacks and two illegal firearms.”
Complicity and Ill-Gotten Gains
That looks good on paper, but it doesn’t change the fact that recorded complaints from the US about Jamaican lottery scammers increased from 1,867 in 2007 to about 30,000 in 2011. Those numbers could be tame. A study conducted by the Caribbean Policy and Research Institute (CaPRI) found that upwards of 90% of lottery scam victims are not reported.
The evidence of how effective the criminal’s tactics are can be seen in the mansions, new cars, and other ostentatious shows of wealth by youth who have no visible means of income. There have been allegations of corruption and collusion on the part of local and federal officials, and complicity on the part of money remittance agencies and banks.
“There is absolutely no level of complicity at the higher levels,” Robinson stated, but he did concede that people are aware that illegal cash is being used to make large purchases and that legal action has been taken against members of the police force.
Even though recent legislation allows the courts to impose the confiscation of the criminal property of persons convicted of violating certain sections of Jamaica’s Proceeds of Crime Act, the law does not address the complicity of car dealers, real estate agents, and others who take the cash without questioning the source. However, Robinson said that legislation is being drafted to address this issue. In the meantime, the money keeps rolling in.
Recognizing their role in the functionality of the lottery scams, private enterprises such as Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS), JN Money Services, Western Union, Money Gram, and the Jamaica Money Remitters Association have made efforts within their organizations to recognize and combat the criminal activity.
The US government has also supplied funding, technical assistance, training opportunities, and equipment to strengthen the Jamaican government’s ability to identify, arrest, and prosecute scammers. One of the first bi-national initiatives was the creation of the Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing (JOLT) Task Force to monitor and dismantle the fraudulent operations. It has been at work since 2009.
To encourage more victims to come forward, the Ministry of Justice was able to have a law implemented in December that allows for live video testimony in the courts. This eliminates the need for victims to fly to Jamaica.
While tourism remains Jamaica’s top industry, officials continue to court BPO companies, and several large-scale construction projects are underway, including that of a cross-country highway. The port is being expanded in an effort to make Jamaica a logistics hub. Rare earth particles have also been discovered.
“There are a number of critical industries that are planned which will allow Jamaicans who want to to earn a legitimate living,” said Robinson. “I think the worst of the crime has passed and the measures have had a positive effect.”