KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
BENNINGTON -- Once a scammer convinces a victim to send their money overseas, it’s gone. But at least one company is striking back on behalf of its customers.
Because the scammers operate outside the U.S., it is difficult if not impossible for local law enforcement to go after them. Police have instead taken to trying to increase public awareness of scams and how to avoid them.
And to aid that effort, Western Union temporarily shut down its money transfer stations in St. James Parish, Jamaica, in an effort to hamper a group believed to be operating a lottery scam out of the Montego Bay area.
FairPoint Communications praised the move Friday, saying companies with services being used by scammers have the power to "strike back" at them, and cited FairPoint’s "Beware: Scams from Area Code 876" campaign as another example.
The campaign was launched in March and includes a Website "www.bewareof876.com," which includes a list of tips on spotting scams and contact numbers to report them. The 876 area code has been associated with the lottery scam, where the scammers target elderly people, telling them they’ve won a lottery but need to send money in order to collect it.
Mike Smith, FairPoint’s Vermont president, said the company has been working with law enforcement agencies in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to get the word out about this particular scam, and others.
"Law enforcement has said, once you send the money, it’s gone," Smith said, adding that there has been a task force assigned to work with Jamaican law enforcement to go after thieves where they live, but the most effective tools now appear to be public education.
He said where the awareness campaign has really hit a nerve is the children of elderly parents who are concerned their loved ones will fall for a scam. He said FairPoint, upon request, can block international calls to certain numbers, or even block specific area codes, to prevent scammers from making a pitch to susceptible people.
Smith said scammers can be very persuasive, even threatening violence. "These people are particularly vicious," he said. "They are heartless criminals intent on destroying lives."
He said reports of scams have come from all over Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
FairPoint spokeswoman Sabina Haskell said there have been reports of scams from Bennington and Readsboro, but did not have the specific numbers available Friday.
The amounts of money being taken are not small, said Smith. He cited figures released by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell’s office that show some in Vermont have lost as much as $18,000. Other individuals in other New England states have reported losses as high as $140,000. It total, estimates regarding the Jamaican scam indicate they are stealing $300 million a year, which is up from the $30 million it is estimated they got in 2009.
According to FairPoint, the lottery scam works like this: A person, typically a senior, will get a call from the 876 area code. Many mistake it for a toll-free number. They are told they’ve won a lottery or some other prize, then are asked to send a fee as high as $4,000 for the winnings to be processed. The scammers claim a representative is in the area who will deliver the check, and have been known to use Google Earth to identify local landmarks to make themselves more convincing.
They are asked to send money via Western Union, Green Dot Card, or some other services. Some are even told to send it in cash, slipping the bills into magazine pages.
According to Larry Caruso, FairPoint senior manager of security, scammers will ask the victim to keep their winnings secret from family members. If they manage the scam once, they then double-up their efforts to get as much from that person as they can, including access to bank and identity information.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr