Beware of the 876 Jamaican phone scam

By U.S. Sen. Susan Collins

Susan Collins    To most Americans, Jamaica is a tropical paradise: an island of lush green mountains and white sand beaches, set in the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. We’ve all seen the ads: full of gorgeous scenery, and upbeat music calling Americans to “come and feel the spirit of Jamaica.” Millions of Americans have accepted that call, including 1.2 million last year alone. These tourists spend billions of dollars annually, money that is critical to the Jamaican economy, in pursuit of their dream vacation.

    But beneath the Jamaica of the enticing ads and the tourists’ dreams lurks another Jamaica, one that brings nightmares to elderly Americans targeted by Jamaican criminals intent on swindling them out of their life savings. Every day, sophisticated Jamaican con artists place an estimated 30 thousand telephone calls to the United States in pursuit of their elderly victims.
    As a leader of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, I, along with Chairman Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), recently held a bipartisan hearing to investigate these scams. Among our witnesses were Kim Nichols, from Hermon, whose father lost $85,000, and Chief Deputy Bill King of the York County Sheriff’s Department who has dedicated countless hours and resources investigating these scams and trying to raise awareness so no one else falls victim. Representatives of FairPoint Communications, including Mike Reed, its Maine state president, also attended the hearing. FairPoint deserves much credit for its efforts to alert the public to this horrible scam.
    Here’s how the swindle works. It starts with a simple phone call from an “876” area code, where the scammer often tells the victim they’ve just won millions of dollars in a lottery or a sweepstakes and a brand new car. All they have to do to collect is to wire a few hundred dollars in upfront processing fees or “taxes,” and their “winnings” will be delivered. Often, the criminals will tell their elderly victims not to share the good news with anyone, so that it will come as a “surprise” when their family finds out.
    Of course, no such winnings are ever delivered, because no such “winnings” exist. The elderly “winners” get nothing but more phone calls – sometimes 50 or 100 calls per day – from scammers demanding more and more money. Behind these calls is an organized and sophisticated criminal enterprise, overseeing boiler room operations in Jamaica. Indeed, money scammed from victims helps fund organized crime in that island nation. Criminals once involved in drug trafficking have found these scams to be more lucrative and safer.
    Expensive “lead lists” identify potential victims. Satellite maps are used to locate and describe victims’ homes to make it appear that the caller is familiar with the community. Elaborate networks for the transfer of funds are established to evade the anti-fraud systems of financial institutions. Should victims move or change their phone numbers, the con artists use all the technology at their disposal to find them and re-establish contact.
    To keep the money coming in ever-increasing amounts, the imposters adopt a variety of identities. Some spend hours on the phone convincing the seniors that they care deeply for them. Victims who resist their entreaties begin receiving calls from Jamaicans posing as American government officials, including local law enforcement, the FBI, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security, asking for personal data and bank account numbers so that they can “solve” the crime. These Jamaican scammers are masters of manipulation, playing to their victims’ fears and emotions until they have drained them of every dime.
    Some Mainers have lost more than a $100,000 dollars to this scam. Others have lost their homes, their cars, and their financial independence, not to mention their security and dignity. Even then, the scammers continue to pursue their prey with a heartlessness that is hard to comprehend.
    The new government in Jamaica has finally passed some new laws targeting the scammers. But I am deeply troubled that it has taken Jamaica so long — years — before getting serious about this problem. For far too long, Jamaican authorities turned a blind eye to this fraud, which was illegally bringing an estimated $300 million annually to their country. I am also troubled by the lack of an aggressive and coordinated effort on the part of U.S. federal law enforcement officials to protect our nation’s most vulnerable senior citizens.
    Our parents and grandparents worked hard their entire lives and saved for retirement. They should not be targeted by criminals who want to rob them of their hard-earned savings. While I believe that our Senate hearings will increase public awareness of these schemes, it is also critical that governments at all levels and across international boundaries work together to shut down these con artists and put them in jail, before their sophisticated scams exploit yet another trusting senior citizen. If law enforcement officials indict these criminals and the Justice Department requests extradition for trial in the United States it will send a message to these criminals that they cannot operate these scams with impunity. Chairman Nelson and I are asking our government to make extradition of these criminals a priority.
    If you or someone you know has been the victim of this crime, you should contact your local law enforcement agency and your phone company. FairPoint Communications has also established a website with more information, www.bewareof876.com.
    Our committee has a great history of working together in a bipartisan fashion to bring to light the scams and swindles targeting our nation’s elderly citizens. I suspect the “876 Jamaican Phone Scam” is one of the worst.

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