FOX 5 NEWS - Sophisticated crooks are using a phone and computer to take victims for millions. And this goes way beyond your run-of-the-mill scam operation. Law enforcement said the scam has got major ties to international organized crime. The so-called Jamaican lottery scam is an offshore scheme that robs the most vulnerable Americans of more than $300 million. As the illegal profits continue to rise, so does the death toll.
A tropical paradise with carefree, luxury accommodations -- that is the image most have of Montego Bay, Jamaica. But outside the security gates are extreme poverty and one of the highest murder rates in the world. These conditions are ripe for the thriving lottery scam business, estimated to have already siphoned $1 billion from the United States, according to officials. Scammers operate out of call centers by dialing names from lists they buy from U.S.-based identity theft brokers.
"They cold-call these people and tell them that they've won the lottery, or won something," said Manny Gomez, a former FBI agent and the president of MG Security. "However the catch is they have to pay them X amount of thousands of dollars to release the funds to them."
The only tools of this scamming trade are a phone and a computer. Many of the con artists have a customer service background. They prey especially on the elderly in the United States, stalker-calling them and demanding more cash before they can turn over the jackpot winnings. The stress drove Albert Poland Jr., an 81-year-old Tennessee grandfather with Alzheimer's disease, to his death. In his suicide note he said he would be proven right when the jackpot arrived the next day. It never did.
"They can actually look over their homes using Google Earth, or some other tool like that, and be able to detail the color of their vehicle that's sitting in the driveway, their home, how far away they are from the bank, Gomez said.
In Jamaica, the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake are being hijacked by its heavily armed gangs, now fighting over turf and profits. Last week, gunmen invaded a home and killed 6 people who police believe were involved in lottery scamming as a family business.
Cpl. Kevin Watson of Jamaica's major organized crime agency said the violence is escalating.
"Lottery scamming clients have become more valuable, the spoil from lottery scamming has become more valuable, and so there is much conflict going on in the lottery-scamming network," Watson said.
Law enforcement in the states is targeting the people who sell the lists and hitting them with fraud charges. Jamaican police are facing a tough battle. The scamming is so entrenched in the local economy that many kids believe it is an occupation worth pursuing.