Federal officials are warning about fraudulent phone calls that have already scammed millions of dollars from unsuspecting victims across the US, as complaints continue to rise.
It happens to thousands of Americans every year. The phone rings and on the other end is a thief posing as a telemarketer who dupes consumers into believing they’ve won millions of dollars or a brand new car. “Winners” need only pay fees for shipping, insurance, customs duties or taxes before they can claim their prizes. It is a scheme so prevalent, the Federal Trade Commission has a name for it: The Jamaican Sweepstakes Scam, which received the designation because the calls most often originate from Jamaica area code 876.
"It’s a huge problem,” according to FTC Director Todd Kossow. “They are professional gangs who do this full time and are making a lot of money on it.”
Last year, scammers bilked $38 million from unsuspecting consumers in the U.S. That’s up from $32 million the year before. Complaints are on the rise too, soaring from 25,000 in 2010 to 59,000 in 2015.
Khrystal Bowdry has been on the receiving end of these bogus calls for months. While the South Side senior did not fall victim to the scam, she said she wants to put an end to it.
“I’ve been getting these phone calls that I’m a multi-million dollar winner for months now,” Bowdry said. “It needs to stop. It really is harassment. And I’m sure there are some people who fall for some of these things.”
And when they do, the results can be devastating. Published reports tell the story of a New Jersey woman who reportedly committed suicide after losing $128,000, which was her entire life savings.
While there is so far no one solution to stop this scam, there has been some progress made in cases against the alleged callers. The FTC and other agencies have teamed up with Jamaican authorities to fight back with a task force called “Project Jolt,” short for Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing.
So far, they say the results have been promising. The FTC reports there have been federal prosecutions of Jamaican sweepstakes scammers in a number of states, including North Dakota, Florida, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, and Texas. These include prosecutions of Jamaican nationals as well as prosecutions of mules in the U.S. who assisted with getting consumers’ funds. In the North Dakota case, one person is currently in prison, and his alleged co-conspirators in Jamaica were just arrested and charged in that case. The Department of Justice is now trying to extradite them to the U.S.
The FTC encourages consumers to protect themselves from Jamaican Sweepstakes scammers by investigating call blocking technologies.
“So on your landline, the first thing we advise you to do is talk to telephone carrier and see what sort of blocking options it provides,” Kossow told NBC 5 Responds. “Smartphone apps are another option. The benefit of the app is a lot of them will have a database of scam numbers associated with them.”
But despite its name, officials say the “Do Not Call List” won’t help prevent these calls.
"Unfortunately it's not going to work with the 876 calls because these are basically criminals who are not going to comply with the Do Not Call List rules," Kossow said.