Most of us would like to win the lottery, but you can't win if you don't play. However, some Jamaicans are cashing in by playing people for fools -- and the Bay Area is a prime target because of the large elderly population.
"The scammers befriend the victim and start to know about their birthdays and their families," explained Alexia Papageorge, a postal inspector working out of the Tampa field office.
It all starts with that familiar pitch: "You're a winner." Sometimes it's a letter, more often it's a phone call, but there's always just one catch.
"We're going to get you the money, but we need you to pay this little fee up front," continued Papageorge. She says new technology is making it easier than ever to commit fraud.
The Green Dot MoneyPak is especially popular method to transfer funds.
"Green Dot is just one example of a loadable card. A legitimate company that deals in a way to get funds to a loved one in another part of the state or another country all together," said Papageorge.
Every card has a unique number, which is what scammers are after.
"What they do is provide the number of this card to the person in Jamaica. They can then load it onto their debit card and can go right to an ATM machine and pull it out. It's an instant transfer."
Winners later figure out they are losers. Green Dot is aware of the problem and is working with authorities. The company sent us a statement which said, in part, "Customers should protect their MoneyPak numbers as they would cash, and Green Dot makes vigorous efforts to remind customers on the MoneyPak packaging and website."
Statistics from the Federal Trade Commission reveal between 2009 and 2012, the agency has received close to 70,000 complaints related to Jamaican lottery scams with losses in excess of $73-million.
The fraud is especially bad in the Montego Bay area. Investigators in the United States are now working with the Jamaican Constabulary Force to combat the fraud and have formed a joint task force called Project JOLT an acronym for Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing.
"They can actually spoof their phone numbers," said Papageorge. "The phone number on your caller ID can hide an 876 Jamaican number and get a local New York or Florida number."
The Post Office has investigated this kind of fraud in Largo, Clearwater, and Sarasota, to name a few local cases. Most of the time the losses are in the tens of thousands of dollars and the victims are too embarrassed to come forward.
Sonia Ellis' mother, Mavis, was a victim. The 79-year-old Sarasota woman tried to give away $90,000 to people in Jamaica.
Why did Mavis keep sending money?
"As you know, these people are very good. This is a Jamaican scam; these people are very convincing. They are so convincing she thought they were her friends, she felt she trusted them," said Sonia Ellis.
She told FOX 13 the calls came day and night and one time she picked up the phone and pretended to be her mother. "I think there is quite a bit of intimidation that goes on there, they became threatening."
The suspects in her mother's case have so far escaped justice, which is often the case and that's why authorities want to spread the word.
"The one thing we have is technology and it's a wonderful thing, but it really opened the door to all these scammers," added Papageorge.
Full Statement from Green Dot:
"Green Dot is committed to educating consumers about how to avoid becoming victims of financial fraud scams and has partnered with the Consumer Federation of America to help enhance these efforts. Consumers should protect their MoneyPak numbers just as they would cash, and Green Dot makes vigorous efforts to remind consumers on the MoneyPak packaging and website never to give their information to a private individual, to someone claiming you have won a prize or lottery, or to pay for items purchased from classified ads. Consumers are encouraged to immediately report fraudulent activity to Green Dot by calling 1-800-GREENDOT (800-473-3636) so we can attempt to recover any funds that have not already been removed by a scammer and continue working with law enforcement to identify the origin of these activities and end these abuses."
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