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Editorial: Targeting the scammers

Published:Tuesday | October 13, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Jamaican authorities have blamed this year's explosion in murders, mostly in western Jamaica, on gangs grappling for the spoils from so-called lottery scamming, the swindling enterprise in which mostly elderly Americans are tricked into parting with large sums of money on the assumption that they will win even more cash.

If they are right, it seems that despite the frequent, loud announcements of arrests and convictions of the fraudsters - including five this week - by the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Terrorism Task Force (MOCA), law-enforcement agencies are having, at best, limited success in stemming the tide. Perhaps, in the circumstance, it is time they reassess their strategies, including finding ways to convince Jamaicans that lotto scamming is a real crime, in whose solution they have a stake.

The fraudsters, as we understand it, are prevalent in western Jamaica because that is where they started, presumably as an offshoot of the region's business outsourcing operations. It is believed that, initially, people's private information was stolen, providing the basis for them being called with news of their supposedly winning big prizes, which could only be redeemed by the payment of service charges. The sources of the leads and approaches to the hustle may have changed, but it is estimated that the rackets earn scores of millions of dollars annually, of which many people want a larger piece.


Little opposition to scams


There was little outrage against these scams because many Jamaicans assumed it to be victimless crime. The people who parted with their money were mostly old, white Americans, who, it was rationalised, were too greedy and could afford to lose anyway. There is also the argument that the fraud brings money to communities.

This response to criminality is not only perversely flawed, but it failed to anticipate what happens when criminal syndicates perceive opportunities for easy money: They want more. And usually with the consequences that have emerged in Jamaica - people fighting over how the returns are shared, or criminal gangs attempting to poach each other's operators or to bring the independent operators under their umbrella. When matters are not resolved by muscled persuasion, the guns bark.

The national security ministry is currently running advertisements telling Jamaicans of the importance of what it does. One especially targeting lotto scamming as a crime of victims and its consequences should be a matter of priority.


Little success against gangs


Further, the continued prevalence of the scheme, and the increasing efforts of organised syndicates to burrow deeper into it, suggest, if not failure, very limited success thus far by law-enforcement agencies to penetrate and dismantle gangs, despite the greater legislative flexibility and authority afforded by the anti-gang law approved by Parliament with much fanfare 17 months ago. That ought to be sufficient time for the efficacy of that legislation to become apparent.

We would expect, too, that, operating within the law, in accordance with the provisions of the interception of communications legislation, the authorities would have been working with the island's telecommunications providers to capture information and develop operating profiles of the scammers.

All of this would be coordinated with foreign partners, whose citizens are the victims and whose financial institutions, as well as mail and telecommunications, are used to facilitate the crime.

Maybe such a structured approach to combating the lottery scams happens. We just don't feel it.