The Conversation: How lotto scammers defraud elderly Americans and fuel gang wars in Jamaica
Assistant Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies Damion Blake writes for The Conversation about the source of money that's funding increased violence in his home country.
Normally, January and February are high season for the Jamaican beach city of Montego Bay. But this year, an upsurge in shootings and other violent crime has lead many sunseekers to steer clear.
On Jan. 18, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared a state of emergency in Montego Bay and surrounding St. James Parish. Hotels, restaurants, schools and government went on lockdown, with residents and tourists warned to “remain in their resorts” as police and military flooded the streets.
Since then, some 150 people have been arrested, two AK-47s and numerous other high-powered weapons seized and over 80 rounds of ammunition recovered. The 14-day state of emergency was recently extended until May 2.
Jamaican defense force chief Maj. Gen. Rocky Meade says law enforcement’s mission now is to restore peace in Montego Bay by disrupting gangs, particularly “those that are responsible for murders, lotto scamming, trafficking of arms and guns, and extortion.”
It may sound strange to lump in lottery scams with weapons dealing and homicide. But in Montego Bay, these crimes do fall in the same category.
I’m a Jamaican violence researcher who’s been monitoring lotto scamming – a lethal and growing financial fraud scheme in my home country – since as far back as 2013.
The craft of scamming
In this illegal scheme, Jamaicans pose as lotto officials to convince vulnerable foreigners that they’ve won a big payout. To retrieve their winnings, the caller says, all they have to do is pay a modest “processing fee.”
According to my 2013 study, most perpetrators are young – aged 14 to 25 – and work as telemarketers, remittance services cashiers, hotel employees, taxi drivers, police officers, bank tellers and airline staffers. These professions give them access to the personal information of potential victims.
Largely, I’ve found the fraudsters tend to target Americans, especially the elderly, gamblers, tourists and people who run online businesses. In 2010, Jamaican lotto scammers defrauded US$30 million from scores of victims in the state of Minnesota.
Criminals locate their victims using the contact details on so-called “lead lists” gleaned from hotels and call centers. Services like Google Voice and Vonage allow them to mask their location so that their calls appear to come from an American phone number. They may also try to hide their Jamaican accent, though victims often say it’s clear they’re not American.
Fraudulent callers assure the victims of a large lottery prize, but then inform them that a processing fee is needed to access those funds. Using Western Union, MoneyGram or a Green Dot prepaid card, they manipulate their victims into sending them anywhere from $750 to $2,500 in a week.
Scammers may also menace victims who are reluctant to pay. Using Google Earth, they describe the victim’s home and say they’re waiting “out front,” threatening them with bodily harm.
Over time, Jamaica’s lotto scammers have accrued huge fortunes, earning up to $100,000 a week. This criminal enterprise thrives in the Montego Bay area, the heart of the Jamaican tourism industry. There, it is estimated that thousands of illicit entrepreneurs have gotten rich doing lotto scams since 2007.
New gang wars
Montego Bay also has a long-standing history of gang disputes in poor neighborhoods. So lotto scammers, who generally come from those same violent areas, often use their dirty money to secure protection. They pay criminal organizations to defend their homes and families and bribe police.
Rich, protected and powerful, many lotto fraudsters eventually use their illegal earnings to purchase weapons and manpower, forming criminal gangs of their own and fighting for control over turf in Montego Bay.
As a result, the multimillion-dollar illicit economy is now fueling gang wars, corruption and homicides across western Jamaica. Montego Bay’s crime rate has spiked year upon year and murders have steadily climbed: from 203 in 2015 to 269 in 2016 and 335 in 2017. Montego Bay’s homicide rate is now 50 times that of New York City.
The rising violence in St. James Parish comes amid a national crime wave. In the first 20 days of 2018, say national police, Jamaica saw 100 homicides – an average of five killings per day.
Globalization: great for crime
Lotto scamming is, in many ways, just a 21st-century rendition of the criminal violence that has plagued Jamaica for decades.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Jamaican political parties first fueled bloodshed by paying and arming criminal groups to help them win at the polls. In the 1980s and 1990s, those same gangs took up drug trafficking and the weapons trade, taking advantage of Jamaica’s strategic maritime location between South America and the U.S.
Now, since 2006, lottery scamming has become their lucrative new revenue source. Estimates suggest that the fraud’s immense profits were behind approximately 50 percent of the 335 murders that occurred in western Jamaica in 2017.
Ultimately, lotto scamming – similar to transnational gangs like MS-13 and the $500 billion global drug market – is a byproduct of globalization. In shrinking the world, globalization has allowed goods, services, ideas, money and contraband to move easily across porous borders.
It’s unlikely Jamaica’s state of emergency can stop that.