Jamaica announced a new government task force Thursday to fight proliferating lottery scams that have made the Caribbean country a center for international telemarketing fraud.
The Jamaican and U.S. governments already have a 3-year-old joint task force that has been dealing with the schemes, which mainly target elderly Americans, but the problem has gotten worse.
Julian Robinson, a senior official in Jamaica's Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, told reporters the lottery scams will seriously damage Jamaica's reputation as a Caribbean tourist destination and business center if they continue.
"The implications of the lotto scam touches and encompasses so many critical areas of our national life," Robinson said while flanked by police commanders and other government officials in tourism, investment and foreign affairs.
He said at least "30,000 calls are made into the U.S. from Jamaica attempting to defraud" American citizens every day. The United States is Jamaica's biggest trade partner and source of tourists.
Robinson cited recent media coverage as a reason why the new inter-ministerial task force has been named. His announcement came two days after The Associated Press published a report on the Jamaican scams.
Police on the island say there are very visible signs of the fraud-spawned riches in the hot spot for the gangs, St. James parish, where a growing number of teenagers and twentysomethings from modest backgrounds are living very well without any obvious source of income.
Deputy Police Commissioner Glenmore Hinds said the violent fraud rings are recruiting students out of high schools, some as young as 14 years of age. One 15-year-old scammer was able to buy his mother a house and drove around his community in a luxury car, Hinds said.
The rising economic power of the swindlers is also having a corrupting influence on police.
"Gangs are now contracted to seek out revenge on competitors and in some cases corrupt policemen are also employed to work for and on behalf of the scammers," Hinds said.
The young Jamaican con artists have become so brazen that they throw lavish street parties. "There are parishes where scammers use champagne to wash their cars and light money as part of their celebrations," Hinds said.
The Jamaican and U.S. governments set up a joint task force three years ago to combat the scams. But complaints in the U.S. have increased dramatically every year and even the most conservative estimates put the yearly take from Jamaican scams at $300 million, up from about $30 million in 2009.
Hinds said several swindle suspects are expected to be extradited to the U.S. soon, but declined to specify how many. So far, there has not been a single extradition.
The scams started taking off in Jamaica roughly five years ago, at about the same time the island became a regional leader in call centers dedicated to customer service. Since 2006, many of the legitimate call centers have been based in Montego Bay, and that is where many of the fraud rings have popped up.
The schemes are so entrenched in Jamaica that some American police departments have started warning vulnerable elderly residents to be wary of calls from Jamaica's 876 telephone code.
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