It happens to thousands of Americans every year. The phone rings and on the other end is a scammer who makes vulnerable seniors believe they've won millions of dollars in a lottery. Many hang up the phone when they get such a call, but others end up paying thousands of dollars to cover bogus expenses such as taxes, and never receive any prize.

Some of these calls came from a particularly notorious group that runs a complex, organized crime known as the Jamaican lottery scam. These scammers are highly organized. They know how to keep their victims on the phone for as long as possible, engage them in conversation and even connect with them on a personal level.

To boost their credibility, the scammers may use web-based tools such as Google Earth to get details about their victims such as the color of the car in their driveway, or the distance of their home from a local bank. They may research their potential victims on websites such as Instant Checkmate and Spokeo to get details such as their previous home addresses and even divorce records.

An Education in Customer Service

How did these scammers become so convincing? Ironically, some honed their phone skills while employed in customer-service call centers set up by legitimate U.S. and Canadian companies, according to Corporal Kevin Watson, a police officer with Jamaica's Major Organized Crime and Anticorruption Agency, Jamaica's equivalent of the FBI. These call centers, located in Kingston and in St. James Parish, had once been used by airline companies, car insurers, computer manufacturers and credit-card companies. Watson, in testimony that was part of a court case against a scammer, said that young Jamaicans were hired and trained in customer service and taught how to communicate and empathize with the people they called.

But things started to go wrong in the 1990s when some of those employees began using the empathy skills they had learned for more nefarious purposes. They began to target the elderly who often had retirement assets and may also have been suffering from dementia or loneliness.

They got their names from people who develop and sell “lead lists” or “sucker lists” of potential victims.  Watson explains that scammers usually make cold calls to surprise their victims. "He'll say, 'You are the winner of $3.5 million.' And then he'll say, 'You're going to also receive a 2012 or 2013 BMW motor car.' And then ask, 'How are you feeling?'


To prevent detection, the crooks tell their marks to keep quiet about their winnings so that others don't become jealous. And they'll follow up with their victims, sometimes calling them multiple times a day to remind them of their good fortune. These scammers pursue their American victims relentlessly and the result is that many elderly Americans are convinced that the calls are legitimate. They then send thousands of dollars to the scammers so to get them to release the promised sweepstakes winnings. 

Accomplices in the U.S. collect and launder the money victims send, often moving it by “mules” back to Jamaica and other countries where the scammers live.  For many, the consequences of the Jamaican scam could be dire: Some victims lose not just their life savings, but also their lives.

'I Want to Be a Scammer'

There is hope that fewer of these scams will take place in the future. A 2013 Jamaican law has made prosecution easier and law enforcement has been cracking down on the scams and working with the U.S.  

In May, for example, Sanjay Williams, a seller of "lead lists," was found guilty in federal court in Bismarck, North Dakota, of conspiracy to commit wire fraud or mail fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and 35 counts of wire fraud. Sentencing is scheduled for late November.

Even so, there are plenty of others who see scamming as a way to make a great living. In his testimony in the Sanjay Williams case, Watson said, "A lot of Jamaicans, especially in the western parishes, have seen this as the only source of income. You also will find children who grow up to believe that it's okay to get involved in lottery scamming."

Watson recalled being asked by an elementary school teacher to talk to her 35 students because half of them had told her they wanted to become lottery scammers. "I asked the little boys, 'Why do you want to become lottery scammers?' Their answers were the same: All lottery scammers drive nice cars, they own big houses, and all they have to do is make a call."