Jamaica's government has signaled plans to incorporate some new tricks to raise the cost of engaging in lottery scamming, having thus far struggled to curb one of the island's top criminal economies.
In the coming weeks, Jamaican law enforcement officials hope added threats of asset seizure and extradition to the US will be enough to turn the tide in what has been a decades-long struggle against such schemes.
Lottery scamming, also known as advance-fee fraud, is an enormous illegal enterprise in Jamaica, having long contributed to the country's horrific levels of violence and extracting an estimated $300 million from victims each year.
Scammers target vulnerable people, typically elderly individuals in the US, and phone them claiming they've won a lottery prize, according to the Jamaica Gleaner. To access their winnings, the victims are told they must pay a "processing fee" by wiring funds to the scammers.
Most famously, in 2014, William Webster, former director of the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI), was targeted by one such scam and told to pay $50,000 in order to get a car and millions of dollars. The FBI used this to make a warning video targeted at older Americans.
In response, the Jamaican Constabulary Force (JCF) plans to target the ill-gotten rewards of scammers more aggressively. "We are going after their assets," the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Clifford Chambers, told reporters.
Last year, at the behest of the US State Department, Jamaica pushed through an amendment to its extradition law, relaxing some of the requirements for firsthand evidence in extradition hearings. US officials expressed optimism to local media that a higher volume of extraditions can now be expected, fortifying another tool against scammer rings. Two such extraditions were already approved in March and April with one defendant, Romario Murrray, reportedly facing charges of involvement in a scamming ring that duped elderly North Americans out of $300,000.
Already, the JFC advertises an anonymous hot line for reporting scammers with potential rewards for arrests, but authorities complained to the Jamaica Gleaner that the activity is deeply embedded in the country.
One official told the news outlet that there are "police, teachers, politicians and even doctors who are scamming. The current law was hastily established, but it is just another basket given to carry water, so there is very little that the police can do about lotto scamming."
And this money conned, largely from US citizens, has been linked to the purchases of illegal guns and ammunition.
InSight Crime Analysis
The government's indication that it plans to heighten the pressure on scammers is welcome, albeit recycled news for the island.
The crime has reportedly bedeviled Jamaica since the early 2000s, and with the country stepping up its broadband internet services, it may become more democratized. The National Broadband Initiative, supported by the Jamaica Public Service Company Limited seeks to provide internet access to every Jamaican household by 2030.
The the initiative would provide a boost in connectivity for citizens, it may deliver the knock-off effect of spreading lottery scamming capabilities further throughout the country.
In the past, scamming rings have mostly operated in Jamaica's western region, but law enforcement told the Jamaica Gleaner that already these organizations are migrating beyond urban centers to rural areas as well.
Such diffusion is a worrying prospect considering the role scamming rings have played over the years in fuelling violence in the country. Indeed, Jamaica remained at the top position for homicide rates in the region in 2021, held up in part by scamming rings competing over contact lists in the illicit economy.
Indeed, the consolidation of these gangs has both Jamaican and US officials nervous, considering the resultant increases in their purchasing power. The Jamaica Gleaner reported that as Jamaican gangs boost their revenues, so too are they increasing their weapons caches.