MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica – The lead vehicle of a motorcade from the Jamaican lottery scam task force rushes through traffic and pulls up to a modest neighborhood of single-story homes. Armed officers jump out to stake out the perimeter and a U.S. special agent for Homeland Security investigations shows an NBC News team an extravagant (by Jamaican standards) three-story mansion jutting from the hillside.
Multiple electric lines run into the home, which has security cameras, a gilded electronic gate and elaborate balconies. We’re told the owner is awaiting trial -- one of 109 Jamaicans charged so far under a cooperative effort between the U.S. and Jamaica to crack down on phone scams targeting elderly Americans in an effort known as Project JOLT.
This is Jamaica’s way of letting Americans know that it knows it has a problem and is trying to do something about it. Authorities say Jamaican scammers have become increasingly sophisticated, aggressive and successful at talking elderly Americans out of hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, so many Americans are falling for Jamaican scams that Jamaican officials claim it’s hurt their country’s reputation.
“If we can't get it under control and hopefully eradicate it completely then it's going to have an impact on the legitimate businesses in Jamaica,” said Peter Bunting Jamaica’s Minister of National Security.
This Caribbean island country is known for ocean breezes, hospitality and a laid back lifestyle. But it also has a troubling side that is becoming familiar to some unlucky Americans.
Jamaican con artists are defrauding mostly elderly targets by selling them a bogus dream. Millions of dollars, new cars and homes won in lotteries and sweepstakes the seniors never entered, according to victims and law enforcement officials.
Norman Breidenbaugh, 81, of Baltimore gave over $400,000 to lottery scammers who promised him millions in cash and a new car once he paid the taxes on the winnings.
His hope was to have enough money to move his wife, Cindy, who was suffering from dementia, from a nursing facility back into their home.
“I believe in the marriage vows I took, which were, you know, 'Til death do us part,’ So I was doing everything I could to get money to bring her home to take care of her,” he said.
Even after she died in 2009, Breidenbaugh kept paying. Eventually, he lost his home and every penny he had.
Some of the callers identified themselves as agents from the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service and the FBI, confirming his winnings and telling him he had to pay taxes or fees to receive the prizes.
“They tell you that they're this, that and the other thing and you want to believe they're legitimate and it turns out they're scum,” Breidenbaugh said.
His experience is not unique. The Federal Trade Commission reported 30,000 complaints related to Jamaican lottery scams in 2012. However, the number of actual victims is likely far higher. Those are only complaints from victims who knew where the calls originated from. The FTC estimates fewer than 10 percent of victims ever report the crime.
Many elderly victims are ashamed of being duped. “Embarrassment is the scammers' greatest ally,” says Deputy Chief William King of York County Sheriff’s office in Maine.
King’s first Jamaican scam case was in 2011. Since then, he has spoken to hundreds of victims from around the country and has observed common threads -- intimidation, threats, harassment and manipulation.
To those who question how anyone could fall for such a scam, King points to the island’s legitimate telemarketing outsourcing industry, which officials say may have been a breeding ground for early scammers. “They're trained to get somebody on the telephone, to overcome objections, to create a fantasy,” he said.
Once a victim is hooked, scammers call victims incessantly, dozens of times a day. When the senior tries to sever ties, swindlers often change the victim’s number without their knowledge so no one else can reach them. They even use Google Earth to describe a senior’s neighborhood and frighten them into paying, authorities say.
Some scammers use romance to reel in victims, feigning interest in lonely seniors, who pay, in part, to maintain the connection.
The United States and Jamaica began working together to eradicate scamming last year. In 2009, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, formed the Joint Operations Linked to Telemarketing task force, or (JOLT). And last year, Jamaica formed the Major Organized Crime and Anti-corruption Task Force (MOCA), charged with investigating lottery scammers.
Jamaican authorities say that as they have cracked down on drug trafficking, more and more criminals have moved into scams for easy money. The low barrier to entry makes it an appealing illicit endeavor, they say. All you need is a phone, a computer and some phone numbers.
Those phone numbers come from lead lists or what some scammers call “suckers” lists, originating from the United States and then sold in Jamaica. So valuable are the lists that criminals are killing one another over them, authorities say.
Bunting, the Jamaican national security minister, estimates 40 to 50 percent of all criminal activity in St. James Parish, the center of scamming activity in the country, is related to the endeavor. .
MOCA has made over 400 arrests, but only a quarter of those have resulted in charges. Where authorities cannot get convictions for scamming, they say they charge victims for any offense they can. The goal is to disrupt the activity.
“If you recall, the infamous Al Capone in Chicago, was not sent to prison, and he did not die in prison, while serving time for bootlegging or other organized crime activities, said Assistant Commissioner of Police Carl Williams, the assistant police commissioner. “He was charged and sentenced for tax evasion, so that's the same principle we take toward doing our enforcement.”
Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, acknowledges that the new Jamaican administration is taking a stronger approach to combat scamming, but she says it is too little too late.
“For years the Jamaican government turned a blind eye to this fraud,” Collins said. “Only recently has the Jamaican government, because of the threat to the reputation of the island as a vacation haven, taken any kind of action to try to crack down and stop these scams.”
Jamaican officials have a difficult task: They must also combat public opinion, because some Jamaicans don’t see scamming as a crime.
“I think the one who give it should be blamed,” one resident told NBC News as he crossed Montego Bay’s bustling Sam Sharpe Square, “not the one who just make a little phone call.” He called scamming “a smart thing to do.”
Kim Nichols of Hermon, Maine, knows the operations are sophisticated. She estimates her 77-year-old father, Bill, who did not want us to use his last name, gave Jamaican scammers over $85,000 in just six months.
“I mean they're incredibly professional at what they do,” she said. “I was amazed at how complicated and layered this scam is and how good at it they were unfortunately.”
Nichols said her father, a retired airline pilot, seemed an unlikely candidate to fall for such a swindle.
“He's just very careful with his money, so everyone was very surprised when this happened,” she said.
Her father said he had multiple callers hounding him at the same time, some claiming to be IRS agents or Treasury agents.
“It was hard to tell who was real and who was fictitious,” he lamented. “And I guess they all were in the final analysis of it. I'd say if they can fool me, they can fool anybody.”
Breidenbaugh, the man who lost everything to the scammers, says there is only one way for seniors to protect themselves from becoming a victim.
“Please don't talk to them,” he said. “Hang that damn phone up. Because if they get their fingers into you, they got you for good.”
And U.S. and Jamaican officials both have one message for Americans: If you haven't played the lottery, you didn't win the lottery.
Lisa Myers is NBC News' senior investigative correspondent; Talesha Reynolds is a producer in the NBC News Washington Bureau.
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