Just hang up

Dan Rather

This week is National Consumer Protection Week, a fitting backdrop for a story I’ve been working on that has become deeply personal.

For years, I’ve heard stories from friends -- mainly senior citizens -- who have received stacks of suspicious mail promising riches from lotteries that no one has ever heard of. Some would even get phone calls saying they had won prize money. Clearly, there was a story here. But I had no idea how big it was.

For the past several months, my reporting team at my weekly newsmagazine program "Dan Rather Reports" (on AXS TV) and I have been digging into what what we've found to be a sophisticated web of scams that are international in scope.

Conservative estimates put the damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Victims can be found in every state of the union and the cost is not just financial, but emotional. These con artists are cowards who prey on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. 

Jamaica has become ground zero for sophisticated scams that work like this: You get a notice in the mail or by phone that you have won millions of dollars in a lottery and maybe a new car. In order to receive your winnings, you just have to mail in a few small payments -- taxes and processing fees. Responding to the scam is the equivalent of putting an “X” on your back, as one expert we talked to phrased it.

Your name is now on what is known as a "lead list" -- a list so valuable that criminals have been known to kill other criminals to get it. Then the phone calls start coming. The voices on the other end often start out being very kind. They say they want to help you get your winnings and they want to know about you, your family, your living situation.

Fraud investigators tell me that the purpose of mining for all this personal information is so scammers can leverage your emotional weaknesses and vulnerabilities so they can manipulate your hopes and fears to get you to send them more money.

As long as you keep sending money, the calls will continue for months or even years. What they’re asking for never changes, just a few more fees and taxes -- small dollar values that add up quickly. Often the victim becomes increasingly confused and scared. (We’ve heard phone calls and voicemail messages where the scammer becomes verbally abusive, terrifying elderly victims.)

The Jamaican lottery scam has been around for years and covered in local news reports and some national outlets. But when we talked to federal and local law enforcement in the United States, like Chief Deputy Bill King in Maine who has become a leading voice in exposing these crimes, we heard that this story has so many facets that it can’t be boiled down to few quick sound bites.

You needed to get into the psychology of this fraud. We heard something similar from advocates for the elderly who are leading the crusade to educate seniors across the country.

But to get to the heart of the scam, we needed to go to Jamaica. So in January, my reporting team and I headed to where local officials are more than a little wary of the press. They know they have a national image to protect, and that a reputation as the center for scamming American seniors would not be good for the tourism business.

The truth is that the Jamaican angle of the story is a tricky one. This is where the vast majority of lottery fraud calls are coming from, but there are many in Jamaica who view it as a victimless crime.

Jamaica’s Minister of National Security Peter Bunting told us that was largely because Jamaicans never hear the victims’ sides of the story. He hoped more reporting on the subject would open the eyes of his countrymen and women to the seriousness of the problem.

While in Jamaica, I got a firsthand look at the problem. I saw a country plagued by high poverty and unemployment, but in a ride-along with a special anti-scamming elite police task force, undercover Jamaican agents showed me mansion after mansion that they say were built by scammers using the money they fleeced from elderly Americans.

I even got to talk to a man who police say is a known big-time scammer. You can start to get a sense of how complicated this problem is, as it is with any type of organized crime. Our reporting uncovered layer upon layer of a shadowy network, including possibly knowing accomplices in the United States, some of whom were seniors who had been targeted by scammers themselves.

You are undoubtedly about to hear a lot more about lottery scamming because the U.S. Senate is about to hold hearings on the problem. And more publicity for this problem is a good thing. But this story is still moving and our investigation is continuing.

Jamaica is poised to pass new legislation that they say will help prosecute scammers. And some officials say scammers may even be extradited to the United States in the near future. But for now, many scammers live essentially out in the open. And investigators in the United States say the best advice they can give is “just hang up."

We have included some clips from our reporting with this article, but we want to stress that we are dedicated to giving this story its proper due. My goal for writing this article was first to inform about the problem but also to ask for your help in crowd-sourcing this important investigation.

Our first report on this subject will air on AXS TV on Tuesday, March 12 at 8pm and 11pm ET. But we plan further investigations. So if you or anyone you know has information that you think can be of help to us, please send a message to our Facebook page or on email at viewer@axs.tv.