What surprises us is not that it has taken place, but that it took so long to happen.
We refer to the decision by Western Union International to order the suspension of its money-transfer operations in Montego Bay, pending a review of their security/compliance systems. GraceKennedy, which has the Western Union franchise in the Caribbean, expects that the closure of the 14 locations will last upwards of a fortnight.
While the immediate effect of this action is being felt in Montego Bay, we do not expect that any changes to the arrangements for the transfer and/or receipt of money will be confined to that city. For GraceKennedy and Western Union are aware of the migratory potential of the problem that they are seeking to address.
Indeed, this development should be a warning to the Jamaican Government and its law-enforcement agencies of the dangers posed to the economy by transnational criminals, such as those behind the lottery scam. It is a matter to be addressed not only with urgency, but certainty, lest Jamaica lose the confidence of its international partners.
The lottery scam involves making telemarketing-style calls to people whose identity information is stolen from legitimate operations. The victims are told they have won lotteries but need to send money to cover certain expenses in order to receive their prizes.
Those who fall prey to these scams are mostly elderly Americans, who the US and Jamaica authorities estimate have been swindled in recent years of over US$300 million. The fraudsters often receive the swindled cash via money-transfer companies.
The fruits of this criminal enterprise are evident, it is claimed, in a freewheeling, consumption binge in western Jamaica among the big bosses of the scam, their underlings and henchmen.
Beyond worsening Jamaica's reputation for corruption, the lottery scam has other nasty downsides. For example, the police say that more than 200 murders have been associated with the scheme during the past two years or so. And what is not spoken about too loudly: concerns about the integrity of people's identity information make some potential investors wary about using Jamaica as an offshore call/back-office centre.
Indeed, it is this concern, and the seeming inability of Jamaica's police to make a creditable assault against the confidence tricksters, that would have caused MoneyGram, the other big American cash-transfer company, to, a year ago, end some of its agency arrangements in western Jamaica.
This move by Western Union, the largest player in Jamaica's money-transfer market, is far more significant. It will inconvenience many people in Montego Bay, as well as signal to people outside Jamaica that a major company believes that the problem is so bad that it has had to call timeout.
This cannot be merely allowed to pass. People have to be assured by the authorities that their special task force on major crimes will do better than the police's apparent bungling when two influential Montego Bay politicians were recently arrested and the public told they were connected to the lottery scam. They were then charged with relatively innocuous and unrelated charges, from which one has already walked free.
That episode still deserves explanation if the public is not to bring its own, and perhaps cynical, interpretation to those events.
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