WASHINGTON, September 1, 2016 – In addition to the usual barrage of unwanted, robo-dial phone calls we get in our office every day, we recently encountered a rather insistent caller ringing in from a Jamaican area code. In fact, the callers at that number dialed us three times within the space of five minutes recently, hanging up twice when we didn’t answer but leaving a message on the third try.
The badly garbled message, left by a male voice with a strange accent, claimed that he was calling from New Jersey with good news. Lucky us: we’d chanced to win big in a recent lottery, and the caller needed us to call him back, pronto, presumably to provide details. He left his number on the recording, the same one that showed up on our phone.
Funny. We never recalled entering any lottery, at least in recent memory. How could we have hit upon such an amazing stroke of luck?
We learned a long time ago never to respond to or engage with such callers. They’re invariably scams. Whether you answer the call or call the contact back, at some point in the conversation, you’ll be pressured to send money, a lot of it. Problem is, there is no prize and you’ll never see the money you sent again.
In the case of the scam-artists who insisted on contacting us concerning that elusive and certainly bogus lottery prize, our quick follow up web search clued us in that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is already onto this one. The FTC notes that the American Citizen Services section of the American Embassy in Kingston is getting increasingly frequent inquiries from U.S. citizens defrauded of hundreds or thousands of dollars by Advance Fee Fraud scammers in Jamaica.
According to the FTC, the most prevalent scam in Jamaica is the lottery scam, where scammers lead victims to believe they have won a drawing or lottery. But there’s a catch: the cash or prizes can’t be released unless the “winner” first pays local fees, processing fees and/or taxes. Scammers frequently target the elderly or those with disposable income.
Note our italics. For some reason, as many individuals age, they become more credulous, which results in a big, potentially tragic problem. Our nation’s elderly have worked and slaved for a lifetime to build their retirement nest eggs, which are crucially important to them regardless of size.
Like old time bank robbers who robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” today’s scammers are far more interested in old timers with presumably large next eggs available for stealing. Yet despite this well known fact, many in this age bracket remain surprisingly gullible and highly susceptible to scams of all kind, including this one.
Anecdotal proof: we’re barely “elderly” here, but that’s probably how we somehow got on the Jamaican scammer’s list—a dubious honor perhaps traceable back to the recent pirating of one of our email addresses.
Unfortunately, such lottery scams are increasingly prevalent. But there are others that are even more sinister.
The Thursday, September 1, 2016 edition of the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall) related the story of an 84-year old widow looking for love on Match.com. Despite Match.com’s screening routines, someone named “Chris”—the alias of an allegedly U.S.-born, London-based antiques dealer—attracted the woman’s attention and they struck up an online relationship.
Sure enough, “Chris” was about to head to the U.S. to visit his lady love when he was hospitalized with serious heart problems. Large medical bills prohibited his trip until they were paid as he was temporarily short of fund. You can see what’s coming next. That unfortunate, credulous, lonely, lovelorn stateside widow sent Chris the $120,000 he needed to clear things up. That, of course, was the last she heard from him. Despite the strenuous efforts of her sons to identify and track down the scammer, she will likely never recover the money.
Interestingly enough, the current Jamaican lottery scammer(s) is looking for the same amount of money as “Chris.” In this case, it’s allegedly to cover whatever $120,000 is supposed to provide prior to release of those lottery winnings. As with the widow’s rather large mite, however, sending $120,000 to these thieves guarantees you only one thing: you’ll never see that money again.
If you’re think you’ve been targeted by one of these potentially fraudulent callers, the FTC tells you to be on the lookout for evidence like the following:
- You receive an unsolicited call, letter or email claiming that you have won a lottery or contest you never entered or that other individuals or businesses entered for you, and that you must pay fees or taxes to claim the prize
- The caller indicates they are doing you a ‘service’ by allowing you to pay fees up front in order to avoid further hassles, taxes, paperwork, lawyers, etc.
- The caller provides stories explaining the urgent need for more money, and finds creative ways for you to obtain and send money, including using ‘Green Dot’ cards, selling property, taking loans, etc.
- A caller you do not know claims to know about your neighborhood, family, or personal situation
- If funds are not submitted, the scammers may feign anger or make threats. Threats include claims that they will report you to the IRS, to the police, or cause bodily harm.
In addition, the FTC notes:
- Scammers may involve unwitting accomplices to contact you, including your friends, family, neighbors or local police
- Scammers may subsequently pose as government officials or lawyers claiming that you must pay for their services to assist with your case, reclaim your scammed funds, or protect you from criminal prosecution. Although the caller may claim to be in Jamaica, he or she may ask that the money be sent to an account in another country or to an accomplice in the U.S. Alternatively, the scammer may state he or she is in a third country but request that funds be sent to the Jamaica.
The agency adds the following practical advice:
“If you think you have been a victim of a lottery scam, speak up and stop sending money. Scammers are difficult to stop because most victims do not report the incident. Report the matter immediately to the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.ftc.gov/ and also the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership among the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BIA), at www.ic3.gov.”
In the event you’re targeted by the current Jamaican Scam,
“You can also inform the U.S. Embassy in Kingston at [email protected] and contact the local police. Stop all communication with the scammers – if their calls do not stop, attempt to block their calls or consider changing your phone number.”
We should note, as we mentioned above, our most recent approach by phone scammers may have originated with a backdoor hack of one of our email accounts, which we tentatively traced to a Russian URL. As we’ve all read in the news swirling about the Hillary Clinton email scandal, elements in Russia, official or not, have greatly increased their surveillance and harassment activities here. Masters of deception, they often cleverly disguise their points of origin, meaning that what looks like a Jamaican Scam might very well be a Russian criminal or government scam. We’re not automatically pinning this on one of that country’s citizens, as it’s easy to appropriate a phone number with another country’s area code.
That means, it’s not only your telephone or smartphone that might be concealing an internatinal scammer. Your email account or an innocently visited website might become a back door entry for more sophisticated scanners. So make sure your personal radar is running and be sure to have the latest reputable anti-virus, anti-Trojan Horse software installed and running on your PC or laptop, not to mention your smartphone. And if you’re a kindly or elderly soul, that advice goes double.
If you’re unfortunate enough to already have been victimized by an apparent phone scam, particularly the current Jamaican Lottery Scam, check out the FTC’s Jamaican Fraud link here.
If you’ve been approached or attacked via the Internet or email, visit the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
Above all, here are four key pieces of advice:
- NEVER send money to anyone you don’t know or haven’t thoroughly vetted—particularly large sums.
- NEVER give out personal information, particularly Social Security Numbers, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers, checking account numbers and the like.
- NEVER click links on suspicious websites that pop up, often unbidden.
- Finally, NEVER answer an email unless you absolutely know who sent it. This is particularly important if you get a suspicious data request from your bank. It could have been sent from an imposter’s website. If you do know the individual or the company that sent the message, but if that message is cryptic and contains links you’re supposed to click, don’t answer the email or click the links.
Responding to such fraudulent emails or clicking embedded links could introduce a Trojan Horse package into your system that will scoop out and send all your personal data and the personal data in your phonebook to the crooks who set you up. Instead, expand the email address to see if an imposter or organization is spoofing your friend’s email address. (That’s what happened to us.) If you have suspicions at all, report the incident and forward the content and expanded address to your ISP.
Staying alert and dealing with telephone, email and other online approaches by suspicious characters or “corporations” with a healthy dose of skepticism should keep your accounts secure and save you from becoming yet another unfortunate victim of an international scam.
Above all, if you’ve saved a nest egg for retirement, don’t even THINK of sending a substantial chunk of it away. You’ll likely never see it again.