By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida's senior citizens are falling victim to a Jamaica-based lottery scam that is spreading across the United States, often involving former drug traffickers drawn by the ease of the lucrative crime, U.S. law enforcement officials say.
U.S. postal inspectors and other officials say seniors are being conned out of thousands of dollars in savings by scam artists in Jamaica who promise them huge lottery winnings, sometimes using aggressive and threatening tactics to bully their victims.
"It's despicable that these crooks are preying on our most vulnerable seniors who sometimes have difficulty remembering important details," Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who chairs the Senate's Special Committee on Aging, told a joint press conference on Friday with federal law enforcement officials.
The scam and other similar lottery schemes may be fleecing Americans out of $1 billion annually, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Complaints about the Jamaica-based scam sky-rocketed from 1,867 to 29,000 between 2007 and 2012, according to the FTC. The likely number of victims could be far higher as many scams go unreported by victims because of embarrassment or fear of retaliation, the FTC said.
The Jamaica-based criminals operate with virtual impunity due to the difficulty of tracing the fraud, but U.S. law enforcement is cracking down.
"We are absolutely targeting these crimes," said Alysa Erichs, an investigator with the Department of Homeland Security, saying that a task force is working with Jamaican authorities to track down the lotto fraudsters for extradition.
Nelson and the Senate Aging panel's top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, have scheduled a congressional hearing on March 13 to investigate the impact of the scam.
Florida in particular is being targeted by the fraudsters largely due to its large senior population, agents say.
"It's a population that comes here to retire ... The older they get the more vulnerable they are," said Nelson.
Scam artists using Jamaica's 876 area code are also calling elderly residents in other states besides Florida, with complaints received in at least 21 states.
The lotto scam has grown so alarmingly that the nation's biggest senior advocacy group, the AARP, earlier this week sent mailers to 25 million members with advice on how to avoid it.
"Our message it very simple; if it sounds too good to be true, it not true," said Victoria Funes, AARP's Florida state director.
One south Florida woman, Mary Kubulak, 78, lost $370,000 after she repeatedly sent cash wire transfers to Jamaica over a six month period in 2011 in response to a call she received saying she had won the lottery, said David Treece, her Miami financial adviser.
"She was living alone and she was really convinced she had won this money," said Treece.
Known as 'advance fee fraud' the calls typically come from phone numbers with the 876 area code for Jamaica, and offer the victim a "service" by allowing them to pay supposed fees up front to handle paperwork such as taxes and legal fees.
It is illegal to play foreign lotteries from the United States, U.S. officials warn.
The scammers string their victims along, often inflating potential winnings and asking for more money to bypass bureaucratic delays. In some cases, victims receive threatening phone calls from the criminals claiming to know where they live, what car they drive and personal details about family and friends.
"They send people here to further harass seniors," said Tony Gomez, acting head of the Postal Inspection Service in Miami. "These are people who used to dabble in the drug trade and they are using some of those same aggressive tactics."
Sometimes, after a victim has woken up to the fraud, the criminals will hit them up for more money posing as law enforcement offering to help them recover their money.
Agents investigating the fraud say criminals pay for access to "lead lists" of potential victims names, addresses and phone numbers. "It's a carpet bombing approach. They hit thousands of people at a time," said Gomez, often using sophisticated 'boiler room' phone bank tactics. The lists are compiled from legitimate telemarketing records that fall into the wrong hands.
(Editing by Tom Brown; editing by Carol Bishopric)