Don't Get Scammed by the Jamaican Lottery Scam

03/01/2016 02:41 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2017

The Jamaican lottery scam is one of the most pernicious scams around. It largely targets the elderly, because they have accumulated their money over a lifetime, are often isolated and lonely, and sometimes are suffering from dementia. So they are especially vulnerable when a caller excitedly calls to tell them "You have won a million dollar lottery." But first they have to come up with some funds for taxes and other fees which they can send, usually by Western Union or MoneyGram, so they can get their winnings. But, of course, the prize never arrives, and some victims have lost their life savings or hundreds of thousands of dollars; a few even committed suicide after realizing what they lost.

The scam has snared thousands of Americans each year at a cost of $300 million a year and has been going on for over a decade, according to Laura Northrup in the Consumerist. http://consumerist.com/2015/10/08/lottery-scam-victims-send-300-million-to-jamaica-each-year It is estimated that the scammers make as many as 30,000 phone calls a day to the U.S., typically from the 876 area code and often using a disposable cellphone, making the calls difficult to trace, as Steve Weisman, a lawyer and professor at Bentley University, points out in a USA Today article. Some scammers use spoofing, so it appears that the caller is in the U.S.

Ironically, many scammers were trained in customer call centers established in Jamaica in the 1990s by legitimate U.S. and Canadian companies, including airlines, car insurers, computer manufacturers, and credit card companies, as Toble Stanger writes in Consumer Reports. The young Jamaicans were trained in customer service and learned how to communicate effectively with the people they called. Then, in the 1990s, the lottery scam began when some employees put the empathy skills they learned to target the elderly. Now even young kids want to grow up to become lottery scammers, because they see the scammers driving nice cars, owning big houses, and all they have to do is make some calls.

The scammers get the names of prospective victims from people who develop lead lists, and typically they make cold calls announcing some great news, such as "You just won $3 million dollars." Once a victim sends them any money to get the winnings, the scammers call again and again with reasons to send more and more money. Some even use web-based tools, such as Google Earth, to find out details about their victims, such as what their home looks like, or they may research potential victims on websites, such as Instant Checkmate, to learn previous home addresses and other personal information. If victims balk at sending more money, the scammers may threaten to kill family members or rape their grandchildren, as Wayne Drash, notes in a CNN article: Driven to Death by Phone Scammers. Sometimes the scammers pose as law enforcement officers or government officials investigating the scam, and the victim has to pay for that, too, such as for the cost of collecting evidence or making a claim.

So what are the signs you have been targeted by a lottery scammer? Here are some tips provided by the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica.

- You get a phone call from a stranger telling you that you have won the lottery, which you didn't enter, and you have to pay some fees or taxes to get the prize. Usually, you have to wire the money through Western Union or a MoneyGram - sometimes to Jamaica or sometimes to an accomplice at a U.S. address.

- The caller claims to be doing you a "service" by allowing you to pay upfront fees, so you can avoid additional taxes, paperwork, hassles, and lawyers.

- If you have sent some money, the caller will tell you stories about why you urgently need to send more money and suggest creative ways you can obtain it, including selling property and taking out loans, so you will get your big windfall.

- If you don't submit any funds, the scammers may appear to become angry and make threats, such as reporting you to the IRS, police, or causing you or your family bodily harm.

- Scammers may later pose as government officials or lawyers, claiming you have to pay for their services to help with your case, reclaim your scammed funds, or protect you from being subject to criminal prosecution.

What can you do to avoid being scammed and help to stop the scam?

- Hang up and stop all communication with the scammers. If the caller calls again, tell him or her not to call anymore.

- If the caller is persistent, say you will report the calls to the authorities and hang up. You can also try to block their calls or consider changing your phone number.

- Don't send any money via Western Union, MoneyGram, or other money transfer services.

- Even if you get a check, it will probably be fraudulent, and a banker may be able to tell you this. In any case, don't cash it or pay any money out, thinking you have been reimbursed, since after about 2-3 weeks, the bank will discover the fraud, and you will not only be out the money but could be subject to a charge of bank fraud yourself.

- Don't believe any threats to harm you, your family, or your grandkids, since the scammers are most likely in another country, and any U.S. or Canadian confederates would be unlikely to risk carrying out such a threat.

- Contact the law enforcement officials who investigate or prosecute such phone scams. These include the Federal Trade Commission's online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP. You can also inform the U.S. Embassy in Kingston and the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Gini Graham Scott, PhD, writes frequently about social trends and everyday life. She is the author of over 50 books with major publishers and has published 30 books through her company Changemakers Publishing and Writing. She writes books and proposals for clients and has written and produced over 50 short videos through Changemakers Productions and is a partner in a service that connects writers to publishers, agents, and the film industry. Her latest books are Scammed, Lies and Liars: How and Why Sociopaths Lie and How to Detect and Deal With Them, and The New Middle Ages: How the Growing Inequalities Between Rich and Poor Threaten Our Way of Life.