BANGOR, Maine — Telephone scammers using Jamaica’s 876 area code are calling elderly Mainers telling them they have won the lottery or a new car — and that they need to send a small fee to get their prize.
The phone scam has been around for years and bilked Maine seniors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, including one woman who lost around $150,000, Maj. Bill King of the York County Sheriff’s Department said Friday at the Hammond Street Senior Center.
He joined U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross and Deputy Chief Troy Morton, Mike Reed, Maine state president for FairPoint Communications, and Hermon resident Kim Nichols, whose father is a victim, during an event at the center. They are partnering to educate seniors all over Maine about how to avoid becoming victims.
Reed characterized phone scamming as a “serious and growing problem.”
Nichols told the group about how her 77-year-old father, a retired airline pilot from Ossipee, N.H., was targeted over a four-month period by Jamaican phone scammers.
“My dad ended up losing over $80,000,” she said.
Nichols said her dad was told he had won a car and some cash through a Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes and all he had to do was send a $500 fee, she said.
“He thought it was a scam and hung up,” Nichols said.
But when another person — claiming to be from the Better Business Bureau — called minutes later and congratulated him about winning the sweepstakes, the septuagenarian started to believe. A third call, this time from a woman named “Diane” at “Megabucks,” sealed the deal and he sent the $500, Nichols said.
“It’s a very complicated scam,” she said.
Her dad befriended Diane, who persuaded him to hand over thousands upon thousands of dollars from his savings. She was such a convincing con artist that he didn’t believe police investigators and the FairPoint security team when they told him he had been scammed, his daughter said.
“He still didn’t want to believe Diane was a part of it,” she said. “He was heartbroken.”
By the end of four months of nearly constant phone scam calls from Jamaica, her father was getting threatening calls from people who claimed they were from the Internal Revenue Service and FBI and his health started to deteriorate, Nichols said.
“Dad really was a wreck,” she said. “He was coming apart at the seams. It was horrible. It broke my heart.”
FairPoint was able to track the calls from the 876 area code to her father’s number, which received between 80 and 100 calls daily at the end, Nichols said.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of stories like that right here in Maine,” Reed said.
“We need to help in spreading the word,” Collins said.
King said he and his department starting getting calls about the Jamaican lottery phone scammers about two years ago and followed the leads in one case all the way to the Caribbean. There he came face to face with a lack of laws to prosecute the phone scammers, he said.
“We had to shift from enforcement to education,” he said, adding that the typical Maine victim loses about $60,000 before realizing that a crime has occurred.
A North Carolina task force, set up to pursue phone scammers, told him the national average is $100,000, King said.
He and fellow law enforcement officials from Maine went to Washington to ask Collins for help in getting the word out.
Collins, who on Thursday was named the top Republican on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said she was reminded of other scams that target seniors but are minor in comparison to what is happening with the 876 area code phone scam.
“Of all the senior citizen scams I have seen out there, it is difficult for me to think of one that is more cruel, more sophisticated and more persistent than the Jamaican phone scam,” Collins said. “The fact the perpetrator tries to cultivate a personal relationship [with the victims] makes it even more appalling.”
Every day more than 30,000 calls are made to the U.S. from the 876 area code in attempts to defraud American citizens, she said.
The Jamaican phone scam is just one of many that target senior citizens in the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website states. It also lists telemarketing, Nigerian letter or “419” fraud, identity theft, advance fee schemes, health care fraud or health insurance fraud, and redemption-Strawman-bond fraud as other major reported crimes.
The FBI does not specifically track the number of people who report international phone scams, an agency spokeswoman based in Boston said Friday. That’s in part because the scams often are considered cyberfraud since many of the connections involve “voiceover Internet protocol” calling, which allows rapid number changes and the ability to disguise the origin of a call, she said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement created a task force called Project JOLT — for Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing — in 2009 “to combat Jamaican-based telemarketing fraud operations that prey on U.S. citizens and others,” said an ICE press release announcing the effort.
Collins and King said the best advice for Mainers is not to pick up a call if it comes from the 876 area code, or to hang up if the caller asks for personal information or money.
“It’s really hard for people, once they pick up that phone, not to be drawn in,” Collins said.