KINGSTON, Jamaica – Eight people accused of defrauding U.S. citizens through a multinational lottery scam were arrested during raids of several homes on a single street in Jamaica's capital, police announced Thursday.
A police statement said officers detained six males and two females during the Wednesday night operation in Havendale, a middle-class community at the foot of the mountains that tower above Kingston. They also seized nearly $150,000 in cash, jewelry, eight flat-screen television sets and five cars, including a BMW 5-series luxury sedan.
Amid an ongoing crackdown on the Jamaican swindlers, authorities say numerous lottery scammers have recently fled their Montego Bay base and relocated to other communities across the Caribbean island. Police urged residents to "desist from renting houses to them or assisting them in any way."
Police Commissioner Owen Ellington has said that other scam suspects arrested earlier this year have since been released on bail, frustrating investigators. Political leaders say they're worried that the lottery scams will seriously damage Jamaica's reputation.
Ellington has also warned that more school-age youngsters in Jamaica are becoming involved with the telemarketing scam rings, which target mostly the elderly, and Internet crimes. Jamaican police did not reveal the ages of the eight people arrested in Havendale.
At a Tuesday forum on national security in Montego Bay, where many of the lottery scams are based, Ellington urged parents to take responsibility of their children. He said some parents are even colluding with young suspects, which police officials say can be as little as 14 years old.
"We have parents who have bank accounts, cars, houses and so on bought for them by their children who are under 18 years old," Ellington said.
A month ago, Jamaica announced a new government task force to fight the lottery scams that have made the tourism-dependent Caribbean country a center for international telemarketing fraud.
The scams started taking off in Jamaica roughly five years ago, at about the same time the island became a regional leader in call centers dedicated to customer service. Since 2006, many of the legitimate call centers have been based in Montego Bay, and that's where many of the fraud rings have popped up.
For the past three years, the Jamaican and U.S. governments have already run a joint task force that has been trying to curb the schemes, but the problem has worsened.
Even the most conservative estimates put the yearly take from Jamaican scams at $300 million, up from about $30 million in 2009. A U.S. Federal Trade Commission official believes the scams could now be bilking Americans out of $1 billion a year.
Most incidents go unreported out of fear or embarrassment, according to the U.S. commission.
Jamaica hasn't extradited a single scam suspect to the United States, but island police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities say some extraditions are in the pipeline.
The schemes are so entrenched in Jamaica that some American police departments are warning vulnerable elderly residents to be wary of calls from Jamaica's 876 telephone code.