Montego Bay Hustle: Beware the Jamaican Lottery Scam

by J. M. Pressley
First published: October 18, 2017

In 2015 alone, more than 60,000 victims, around half of which were over the age of 70, lost more than $38 million to Jamaican telephone scams. Know the danger signs.

As near as I can figure, the scam began sometime in 2014. It was definitely in full swing by fall of 2015. A Jamaican conman, known only as "Mr. Bell" to my mother, began calling to tell her she'd won a sweepstakes and was getting a car (usually a Mercedes) and a cash prize (the amount varied from call to call, but always in the millions). And all she had to do was pay some up-front fees—again, the reasons and amounts varied—and the prizes were hers.

As a matter of fact, he was in town and would be there the very next day to deliver the car and cash. And just as soon as those fees were paid, he'd be there with the prizes. Yet every time, he'd fail to appear, then call with another excuse and request for more money.

There was never any documentation, of course. All business was transacted on the telephone. It didn't seem to matter that the area code, 876, was Jamaica. It didn't seem to matter that the number changed regularly. It didn't seem to matter that later, the call came from other area codes all across the United States. The only thing that remained consistent was the incessant calling, sometimes more than half a dozen calls a day—calls that continue even now, despite multiple blocks and phone number changes.

Still, we've been fortunate. I flew into town in September of 2015 to meet with my parents and a lawyer, and we quickly devised a plan to draw up a durable power of attorney for both my mother and father and to consolidate and redo their finances to limit the damage that could be done. So, according to my calculations, we've probably contained the overall losses to under $10,000. It could be much worse, because my mother still refuses to believe that "Mr. Bell" is a criminal, and is usually only a phone call away from a relapse. And this after years of failed promises and money lost to a prize that will never arrive.

Why am I telling this story? Because in 2015 alone, more than 60,000 victims—around half of which were over the age of 70—lost more than $38 million to this same scam (Source: Forbes). It's pernicious and pervasive, but it doesn't have to be that way. There are several hallmarks of this kind of scam that should raise the eyebrows of friends and family, if not the victims themselves.

  • You've won a lottery or sweepstakes that you didn't enter. You can't win if you don't play; ergo, if you didn't enter a sweepstakes, you didn't win it. A variant of this con is the "random shopper" angle, where the scammer tries to get the victim to believe that their receipt for shopping at some company was randomly drawn for the "prize" winnings. And please be aware that American citizens are prohibited by law from entering foreign lotteries, so anyone and anything claiming otherwise is only after your money.
  • You have to pay an advance fee to collect. It seems like common sense, but by both semantic and legal definition, if you must pay to get it, it's not a prize. This includes alleged taxes, processing fees, escrow funds, or any other fee you may be asked to provide. Taxes on winnings—like any other taxed income—are paid to the IRS when you file your taxes, after you've received the money.
  • Contact is by phone only. If there's nothing in writing and the only means of communication is by telephone—especially when the number tends to change often—then there is more than enough reason to suspect a fraud. Be especially vigilant about taking calls from 900 numbers, which charge you by the minute, or from area code 876, which is Jamaica. Also, sweepstakes and lottery organizations do not typically call winners in advance to let them know they've won.
  • The contact claims to be from the government or law enforcement. A newer common ploy is for the scammer to claim to be from the Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department, or even your local law enforcement. Playing off suspicion, these imposters say that the FTC or some other "official" government entity has taken over the responsibility for disbursing prize awards because of corruption and fraud. No such thing has happened. You can disprove this quite easily by contacting the alleged agency.
  • They want you to keep it a secret. Because if anyone else knew that you were getting a large sum of money, they might try to take advantage and swindle you. It's ironic, but also makes a lot of sense when you understand that this is a confidence scheme, and the scammer wants no one else getting the attention of the intended victim. Also, keeping it a secret breeds additional shame for the victim if the scam comes to light, making it increasingly harder to tell the truth once it's realized.
  • Payment is requested via wire transfers or gift cards. This only serves to launder the money being sent to the criminals. Once the money has left your bank account, it will be much harder to track and recover. Also, why would a legitimate American company require funds to be wired (or converted to a gift card and sent) overseas? Also, beware of requests to send funds to personal addresses, as this leverages a network of accomplices or even other victims to further cover up the money trail back to the scammer.
  • They're always in town ready to deliver your prize, but something always happens. It's gotten much easier to fake proximity and/or familiarity with a given area because of the Internet and mapping technology. For instance, I've never been to Wyoming, but if you're not paying too much attention, I could probably sell you on the idea that I'm in Glenrock on West Birch Street just east of Keller Drive after passing the Lutheran church. The flip side of this is that the scammer, who is supposed to be there with the car and cash at, say, 10:00 that morning will not be there. Then, they inevitably call at 5:00 to tell you that there's been a problem, and you'll need to pay another amount to solve it.
  • They become belligerent or threatening when questioned. Usually the scammer will start out convincing you that they are your best and/or only friend. You deserve that prize, and they're doing everything in their power to see that you get it. But sometimes, if the intended victim begins to question or suspect too much, they'll turn to threats and attempted extortion, especially if the target has cooperated in the past. For instance, they may imply that the victim could go to jail as a knowing accomplice, or may threaten violence against family members.

Ultimately, this may result in a very difficult situation. Money has been lost, from a few hundred dollars to many thousands in some cases. The victim feels betrayed by the scammer; the family often feels betrayed by the victim. This can easily lead to frustration, anger and resentment on both sides. Our own experience has absolutely strained the relationship between my parents as well as the bond between me and my mother.

The keys to recovery—if recovery is possible—are to support your loved one as best you can, to try to break that spell of the scammer, and to be firm without being harsh in pointing out the reality of the situation. If recovery isn't possible, if the scammer's target is too steadfast in their belief, then you must be prepared to do whatever you can to protect both victim and family from financial ruin.

Further Reading

CNN: Driven to Death by Phone Scammers

FBI News: Scammers Target the Elderly

Forbes: Jamaica Sweepstakes Fraud Targets Older Americans

The Guardian: Lottery scams prey on the vulnerable and help fuel violence in Jamaica

Snopes.com: Lottery Scams

Vice News: One FBI agent's war on the deadly scam that took over Jamaica