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EDITORIAL - Lottery scam: conspiracy of silence

Published:Saturday | April 21, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Three years and roughly 100 arrests later, the United States-Jamaica task force set up to combat the burgeoning lottery scam appears to have failed spectacularly. From all accounts, the telemarketing fraud is picking up steam and bilking more elderly Americans of their life savings.

Montego Bay has earned the reputation for being the epicentre of the lottery scam, and complaints from US victims rose from under 2,000 in 2007 to about 30,000 last year.

As the adverse publicity gathers momentum and the 876 area code becomes blacklisted, the Government has named a new task force to try to erase the image being presented of Jamaica as a nation of fraudsters.

State Minister for Technology Julian Robinson, who announced the creation of the new body, suggested also that more stringent legislation is needed to tackle the problem. But is legislation the solution? Our US partners seem to feel that failure of the operation has more to do with the scarcity of crime-fighting technology and the lengthy court delays. For example, extradition requests for suspected lottery scammers have been hinted at for many months, but so far no one has been extradited.

This story raises some troubling and important issues about a problem that is more than six years old. The first is that despite multiple arrests and suspension of police personnel, the scam keeps widening. The second is, why has it been so difficult to shut down the criminal network when lottery-spawned wealth is obvious in many St James communities where multi-storey homes are springing out of the ground and jobless persons are acquiring luxury vehicles?

time to get tough

There is no mystery about how the scam works, for countless news organisations have revealed that it begins with legitimate telemarketing centres, both local and overseas, selling the list of phone numbers to scammers. They then contact potential victims advising them of phoney lottery winnings, which they will only collect after wiring money for insurance through a remittance service or using PayPak cards.

It is true that law enforcement does have a hard time solving transnational crimes, but in this lottery scam, there is so much to connect the perpetrators to the scam. Each of the key players in this operation can help to stop this corrosive scheme.

If it becomes necessary, the Government should move to shut down the telemarketers and put them out of business until they can demonstrate that effective safeguards are in place to keep the lists safe. It may also mean stricter monitoring of money-transfer services and also telephone calls being made to certain destinations in the United States.

The other problem has to do with the attitude of people. There appears to be a silent conspiracy among persons who turn a blind eye to these activities, as they somehow feel that the lottery scam is not hurting anyone.

But this is so wrong. What we are left with is more than 300 deaths linked to the lottery scam. Some elderly persons have lost everything and are now living in deep distress. And Jamaica hurts from all of this treacherous activity. There are potentially serious implications for legitimate businesses, including tourism interests which could see a fall-off in business from persons who decide to shun this destination.

Ill-gotten monetary gain by a selfish few is threatening to put an entire country at risk. It should not be allowed to happen.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.