A Foreign Lottery Scam Turns Into a Murder Plot
In part 2 of this episode, the scammer’s demands intensify as authorities continue their investigation
In a Texas suburb, a typical lottery scam has turned into something much more sinister. A scammer has promised a retired couple a fictitious lottery payout if they continue to send him money for fees and taxes. With their life savings gone, the victims are forced to sell their home. But the swindler isn’t done with them yet, as his constant calls have created a bond between him and the 70-year-old woman, who may be suffering from dementia. He realizes that she has grown fond of him and pivots from a lottery to a romance scam. He promises her a beautiful life together on the sandy beaches of Jamaica, where he’s based. The con man tells her that all he needs is money in order to start building an oceanfront dream home that they can share. To come up with the funds, he proposes a disturbing plan. He demands that she kill her husband and flee to Jamaica with the proceeds of their home sale.
The United States Postal Inspection Service, which has been monitoring a trail of cash making its way from the U.S. to the scammer in Jamaica, discovers the couple in Texas and sends an agent to their home. When the agent arrives, little does he know he’s about to walk into a murder plot.
TIPS: If you think you’ve been a victim of a scam or would like to report fraud call The Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Anyone can become the victim of a scam, it’s important to be vigilant and know your vulnerabilities. For instance, if you are looking for a job you are more vulnerable to a work-at-home scam.
[00:00:00] Will: Coming up on AARP - The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] Brian Witt: They were directing him, her to murder her husband, cash that $30,000 cashier's check, and hop on the first plane from Austin to Jamaica that she could get, and they would be able to live happily ever after in the beach house that he had built for her.
[00:00:17] Will: Welcome back to AARP - The Perfect Scam. I'm here once again this week with AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador, Frank Abagnale. Frank, we are here for Part 2 of this story about a Jamaican lottery scam that turns into a romance scam.
[00:00:30] Frank Abagnale: Glad to be here, thanks.
[00:00:31] Will: So Frank, we talked about this couple in their 70s who are targeted by scammers, the origin of the scam is in Jamaica. Um, we talked about why scams are an issue there and why the United States is in fact looking very closely at them. Have you dealt with scams originating from Jamaica?
[00:00:50] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, many, many scams come out of Jamaica. Um, mainly because the telecommunications systems there, the way the government is structured there, and of course scammers and that do these things from overseas like places like Nigeria or Jamaica, it's very, very difficult to get those individuals even though you know who they are. And of course, law enforcement agencies aren’t really interested in one guy. They're trying to get as many people as they can so there's a lot of investigation and time that goes into that. But even when you find them, you have to get the authorities in that country to really help you and assist you, and one in the arrest, one in pressing the charges, and then it is very difficult to extradite someone out of their own country where it's their place of birth. It's not easy to do, so then you always have that you have to deal with as the final step to try and get them back to face justice.
[00:01:38] Will: Well we'll talk more about what law enforcement is able to do in this story, but let--, let's get into it. Again, this is a couple living in an Austin, Texas, neighborhood. They were the victims of a lottery scam. Over 18 months the scammers convinced them to send money to pay taxes and other fees in order to collect their winnings, and over time, they lost almost $250,000.
[00:02:00] Will: These scams are so prevalent these days that we have a name for them, JOLT, or Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing. Dominic Reilly works for the US Postal Inspection Service and for the past two years he's been living and working in Jamaica. His one purpose, to investigate and bring JOLT scammers to justice.
[00:02:17] Dominic Reilly: The average Jamaican citizen is, is a wonderful person. I mean you have people who are very friendly, who it's still a type of place where you can go and have a great time and it's very fa--, family oriented, but there are just, there's just this seed of bad people that are, ruin it for the normal Jamaican citizen.
[00:02:40] Will: Dominic has seen for himself how victims in the US can get hooked into lottery scams.
[00:02:44] Dominic Reilly: Because I've talked to people personally and went into their living room and showed them my badge and talked to them about the scam, and they tell me they're not going to do it. As soon as I leave out of the house, a couple days later they're sending more money.
[00:02:59] Will: That's exactly what happened with a couple in Texas. US Postal Service Agent Brian Witt has been investigating JOLT scams for more than 10 years. His office can hear about 10 to 20 JOLT cases a month. And when he visited the husband and wife near Austin, he finds them at a breaking point. They're selling their home because they'd sent so much money to scammers, and the scam has a hook. The wife had developed what she believed to be a romantic relationship with one of the scammers. The husband knew what was going on. It was out in the open. But even after federal agents show up, and Brian spends hours talking to them, getting them reassurance that they know it's a scam, the case isn't over. The day after leaving the couple's home, Brian gets a call. He learns that the scammer's telling the wife to send the last $30,000 they had to their name. That wasn't all.
[00:03:46] Brian Witt: She was being directed by the Jamaicans to take that cashier's check, murder her husband in the home, hop on the first airplane to Jamaica that she could bringing the $30,000 in cash, and that she and her boyfriend would then live happily ever after in their beach home.
[00:04:03] Will: Wow. So here's a couple that's been married for over 50 years, they were in their 70s, uh, and all of a sudden, they have this woman contemplating the murder of her husband.
[00:04:15] Brian Witt: Right, and I, I think what made this case so unique is, when you say contemplating that it was really almost beyond contemplating.
[00:04:23] Will: With lights flashing and sirens blaring, Brian Witt and police officers rush to the couple's home and go inside. It's a scene Brian Witt will never forget.
[00:04:31] Brian Witt: So, as we walked into this wide open home that had no, nothing in it save one chair that she was seated in the chair, and she had a knife and she and the husband were arguing, and I was amazed in talking with her that the individual in Jamaica had so much power over here, she was literally going through the exercise out loud where she was saying, "Well we've been married for," and I'm paraphrasing of course, but she was actually trying to reason it out verbally saying, "We've been married for 50 years. Surely there's some way other than me killing him." This was the conversation that she was having out loud and imagine your wife of 50 years sitting in front of you in a chair who's having a conversation on the phone with her Jamaican boyfriend, and she's contemplating or arguing with him about there must be another way other than me killing my husband of 50 years. It wasn't an issue as to whether or not she was going to take that check, whether or not she was going to cash it, whether or not she was going to get on the plane.
[00:05:30] Will: Brian Witt overhears the scammers guiding the wife through the murder with explicit instructions on how to do it.
[00:05:36] Brian Witt: But I'll always remember very specifically, he was saying, stab him in the heart, get the biggest knife you can, stab him in the heart, cut his throat, then leave, cash the check, get on the first plane that you can to Jamaica, we'll live happily ever after.
[00:05:50] Will: And you could hear that conversation. You could hear him on speaker.
[00:05:53] Brian Witt: Yes.
[00:05:54] Will: Brian Witt was there just in time. He's convinced her husband's life was at stake.
[00:05:58] Brian Witt: Because the mere fact that she suffered from some degree of dementia, and the mere fact that she had the knife, that she had the instrument, and I think when you couple that with the fact that she was going through the rationalization of it, of is there another way, do I have to do that? Rather than, most people, I think we would all agree a normal person would just be appalled and say, no, I'm not going to do that. I would never do that, whatever the circumstance. In her case, she was actually contemplating the logistics of, is there another way, and if so, how would I do it, and then how am I going to make it to the plane, and how am I going to get out of here?
[00:06:30] Will: It's tough to imagine someone getting to that point, to the point of almost killing a spouse of over 50 years, but the scammers had put in a year and a half of work, and they found the perfect victim.
[00:06:39] Brian Witt: These offenders, in particularly, although not formally schooled, they have certain schooled themselves in how to be able to read people, determine what's missing in their life, how to reach those people, and how to integrate and make them self a part of that person's life.
[00:06:52] Will: The wife was convinced to put the knife down, to hang up the phone. The comment of crisis was over. The couple's children are called, and the parents are safely taken away. No charges filed. But the investigation is in high gear.
[00:07:05] Brian Witt: This is one victim in a long, long stream of victims for this particular group. And all although this is a very egregious example of what happened with one victim, um this offender has actually victimized many people in the United States, and so this investigation is still active, still ongoing, and in, and the reason for that is, I'm sure and your listeners can appreciate, our objective is not to get any single one person but rather to dismantle entire groups or entire organizations that are responsible for it.
[00:07:35] Will: That takes time and effort, months and sometimes, years.
[00:07:38] Brian Witt: Ultimately our goal is to identify the individuals, develop the case on the individuals, and extradite them back onto United States soil where they can answer to a judge, jury, and judicial process here and face their victims in court here in the United States.
[00:07:54] Will: What we do know, is that a suspect has been identified, and it's not about bringing down just one scammer, but a fraud ring, and the couple in Texas is just one example of who is caught up in the scam.
[00:08:04] Brian Witt: These are usually ones that involve hundreds of victims, and we're identifying, for example, half a dozen or a dozen criminal conspirators in Jamaica that are responsible for defrauding those hundreds of, of Americans, and the whole group is then indicted, extradited and brought back to the United States to face justice.
[00:08:22] Will: To understand how JOLT scammers are able to do what they do, you have to take a look at the tools and tricks they have up their sleeve, and there are many. One of those tricks is the use of VOIP, or Voice Over IP.
[00:08:34] Dominic Reilly: And they changed their phone numbers to make it seem like they're calling from the US, when in fact, they're calling from Jamaica, so if I knew your area code was 228, for example, I would make my area code 228 so when I called your phone, it would show up like it was a local number and I'd tell you that you won so many millions of dollars and all you have to do is pay the taxes. Just go from there. And I'd make it seem like I'm a local person, or in a, in an area that I want to portray that I'm in. So if I say I'm, I'm from DC, I could make it a DC area code, or New York, I could make it a New York area code.
[00:09:09] Will: Another tool they use is Google Maps.
[00:09:11] Dominic Reilly: Because they can get your address and then they can look you up on Google Maps to tell you what your house looks like. So now I can convince you that hey, I'm coming to your house. I was just by there yesterday. I saw you had a red door with two plants on the side of the door.
[00:09:25] Will: Using that trick, they can threaten victims, tell them they know where they live, and they can find their house. They also use money mules in order to get the money back to Jamaica without using a wire transfer or other payment method that might get noticed by authorities.
[00:09:39] Dominic Reilly: So they'll send money to a victim who has now turned into a mule because they spent all of their money, and then they convince that person to send money to another person, and then that other person sends that money to Jamaica. So it's a, it's a way to keep you from knowing exactly where the money's coming in from.
[00:09:57] Will: They also disguise their accents.
[00:09:59] Dominic Reilly: Yes, they do. They, and, and you've got to think they're trained in call centers, so a lot of them have really good Queen's English, and but they can turn and speak Patwah on a dime.
[00:10:12] Will: Even fake websites play into the scams.
[00:10:14] Dominic Reilly: They'll create a website that's like Publisher's Clearing House and tell you to click on a link. You click on the link and it gives you a number to call, and then they're telling you, you think you're talking to a Publisher's Clearing House person, or a Mega Millions person.
[00:10:27] Will: And the cost of all this to Jamaicans is significant. The murder rate in Jamaica in 2017 is one of the highest on record. Scammers are targeted for their money by gang members.
[00:10:37] Dominic Reilly: 1600 murders which is, to put that in context, that's more murders than LA, New York, and Chicago combined in a year.
[00:10:44] Will: It's all intertwined. JOLT scams lead to other illegal activity.
[00:10:48] Dominic Reilly: Jamaican lottery scam brings in money which in turn funds money for drugs, for guns, then makes more money which in turn creates the violence and the other mayhem that you have here on the island.
[00:11:05] Will: another huge component of the business is lead lists. These are the lists that scammers use to target victims; people that have already been scammed or have been shown a willingness to pick up the phone and to send money.
[00:11:16] Dominic Reilly: The typical list may have a thousand names on it, so if you can get 10 people off that list to give you money on a regular basis, you're making a lot of money.
[00:11:27] Will: There are people whose job it is to sell these lists, as lead list brokers. And with all that money floating around, people need protection. Scammers are willing to pay for that protection. Joanna Callen works for CAPRI; a public policy think tank in Jamaica. They're taking a close look at the issue of JOLT scams, and the issues connected to the scam industry.
[00:11:45] Joanna Callen: Some scammers actually group together for protection and arm themselves as they could afford to do so with the money generated from scamming against typical criminals who are attempting to extort them. Some scammers actually hire traditional gangs to protect them from either other gangs or from other scammers who are trying to, you know, push in on their business so to speak.
[00:12:08] Will: So it's complicated. The scams, extortion, protection, gang violence, even murder. It's all linked together. Joanna believes that the spotlight is even brighter on Jamaica because it's such a small island.
[00:12:21] Joanna Callen: We have a population of 2.9 million persons roughly. And part of the reason we get a bad rap is because of the fact that we are such a small island, but it's also is that crime is just (inaudible). And it's really a small but very virulent group of persons that are perpetrating these crimes, and most Jamaicans are hardworking persons who legitimately engage in society. And I can see dividing lines with the same hardships experienced by Americans.
[00:12:52] Will: Even so, the scam culture is touching so many aspects of life in Jamaica. Part of the problem is that there are so many investigations into the scams coming from so many different places.
[00:13:01] Joanna Callen: There are, there were 36,000 cases that were opened up, and like I said that there's no single US law enforcement entity that is big enough to handle this. Western Union has their own investigations going on. Money Gram has their own investigations going on. Even the company that produces the green docs, and prepaid VISA cards, they have their own as well, so there has to be a concerted effort by the public and private stakeholders who think crime engages to actually deal with it defensively.
[00:13:32] Will: For Postal Inspector Dominic Reilly, the tide is starting to turn. He believes when Jamaican scammers are extradited and convicted, it sends a clear message.
[00:13:40] Dominic Reilly: We started doing this back in probably 2009, and we didn't have any extraditions from Jamaica until 2014, '15... 2015. But now we've had probably 20, 25 extraditions.
[00:13:58] Will: The other key component is education.
[00:14:01] Dominic Reilly: For those kids, I would just try to show them a better way. Give them a better option, and, and that's what we try to do. We go out and we talk to kids and we, we do other types of programs with the, with the Embassy and US Aid and UK Aid and some of the other countries that are here, we try to show the, the children of Jamaica, that there is a better way than just doing this type of criminal activity.
[00:14:28] Will: Brian Witt with the US Postal Inspection Service knows that the answer isn't just busting the bad guys in Jamaica. It's also making sure we're looking out for each other here at home.
[00:14:37] Brian Witt: There's a vulnerable group of people, they need someone watching out for them. They need help. That the people will prey upon them, to try and raise people up to a standard to look out for their neighbor so to speak. And uh, but then I think we're also in a position as law enforcement to realize, it's not just our job to go out and arrest the bad guy, the offender, but we also want to try and have a responsibility to the victim to try and get them the help that they need and try and prevent them from being further victimized or even return funds that they've, that they've lost. I think that's been the biggest change that I’ve seen where we're not just focused on law enforcement, we're also focused on how can we identify victims once they become victims, what can we try to do to stop them from being further victimized, what can we do to get them the help that they need, maybe mentally and physically and being able to take some of that social responsibility.
[00:15:27] Will: Over and over again as we look at scams, it's the people who are isolated, not connected to family and friends who are not getting the message. They're just not aware that these scams even exist.
[00:15:38] Brian Witt: I may go out in a given month and do half a dozen presentations to various civic groups, to various uh over 50 senior banking groups and so on, trying to reach individuals and educate them about the fraud. But what I found in that time also, is that the individuals that are often targeted by this fraud, and the ones who tend to lose everything, the ones who tend to have the greatest loss, not just financially but emotionally, the ones who tend to have the greatest loss are usually isolated. And the mere fact that they're already isolated means they're not at that over 55 banking luncheon that I'm speaking at. They're not at the support groups that I'm speaking at. They're not at the retirement seminars that I'm speaking at, right, because the very nature of the fact that they've isolated themselves somewhat from society means we're not reaching them in our traditional outreach, but it also means by being so isolated they're prime targets to be uh, attacked and be vulnerable to the attacks by the Jamaicans.
[00:16:35] Will: It might be hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who's isolated, who may be hungry for connection. But so often, these are the people who lose everything.
[00:16:43] Brian Witt: I have found that many victims, many victims, their rationale for continuing to talk to these people, even after they've been told that it's a fraud, even after they've lost money or had their money returned by us; their rationale, oftentimes I've had expressed to me, is simply, it's somebody to talk to. It's somebody to talk to. Because it's not uncommon for them to talk to these fraudsters for hours at a time on a given day. So when you consider how we've got elements of the elderly here in the United States, vulnerable people who are cut off from society, may not have close family members watching over them, and suddenly, they're in contact with somebody who's not only telling them they've won substantial amounts of money, but they're willing to invest time and conversation with them. They're willing to get to know them on a personal basis and have personal conversations. They really do begin to develop almost a personal bond with these people. So I think when you put those two things together, it really does make for the perfect storm for that individual to ultimately be defrauded out of everything that they have.
[00:17:44] Will: On top of that, there's a mindset that kicks in when victims are hooked into a scam.
[00:17:48] Brian Witt: Once they have a certain amount invested or lost, it's harder for them to let go. There's that, always that glimmer of hope that if I just do this, then I'm going to be able to get the benefit. Then I'm going to get that, I'm going to make it to the end of the rainbow. I just have to do this. And, and that's important, because that's how the Jamaicans phrase it. That's how the fraudsters phrase it. It's always, well if we can just do this, if we can just get me the thousand dollars, if you can just send me this last $5000, we're always going to get to that magical point in time when we get the pot of gold, and in reality, all they do is they continue to move the finish line every time to continue to dangle that carrot and entice people to do that.
[00:18:28] Will: Sadly, that pot of gold typically doesn't exist, and there's no fortune waiting at the end of the rainbow.
[00:18:35] Will: So Frank, thankfully this couple in Austin, Texas, they're okay. It ends without any major issues. But certainly, they lost a lot of money. One of the things that comes out of these scams that people ask about is, how scammers are able to target older people, and certainly there's lists, we've talked about the Dark Web and lists that are bought and sold, and your age and your social security number. Can you talk about that though?
[00:19:00] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, and I get asked that question a lot, and of course, the simplest way is that you know when I was a kid and you went to the phone book called the white pages...
[00:19:09] Will: What's that? The white pages?
[00:19:09] Frank Abagnale: The white pages, it was a big book and you looked up the person's name alphabetically and they gave you the person's name and their address and their phone number. That was it. When you go to whitepages.com now, not only does it tell you who lives at that residence, but it tells you the age or approximate age of the people that live in that house, including children and other family members that may be living there. So, all you have to do is, and you go to simple names like Smith or Rourke, Jones, and you start to look at these names, and you can also break it down by the address that's up there as what kind of neighborhood. Is this a prominent neighborhood, a retirement neighborhood? The people there mostly likely have money don't live there. So you're able to go through those, especially when you know what you're doing and get a tremendous amount of information, and that's why, those are the people who get targeted and get those calls.
[00:19:57] Will: Wow. So it's just not that hard. I mean scammers are going online to databases that any one of us can get onto.
[00:20:05] Frank Abagnale: Anybody can go to, and it's just a little bit of research, and it doesn't take long to do.
[00:20:09] Will: That being said, one thing we've learned about these scams is that lead lists become a big part of the industry and about the, and, and the business. There are people who are selling just lists, and that's like a whole part of the scam industry.
[00:20:24] Frank Abagnale: Yeah, they constantly say, we live in a way too much information world. You can find out anything about anybody with a few strokes on a keyboard, and that's what makes it so scary, and every day we get more information and more access to more information, and more ways to obtain information on individuals, so obviously a criminal's going to use that to their advantage.
[00:20:45] Will: What's this all going to look like in 20 years? Where, where are we going?
[00:20:47] Frank Abagnale: Not only the technology or the ability to shut off someone's pacemaker, the ability that you can take over the control of their car, but just all of the things that come with way too much technology that no one ever uh stops whence they develop it to ask the question, how would someone misuse it? That's what's wrong with a lot of our technology today, so we developed a device that you have in your home that you can talk to and you ask it what time of day it is, what's on TV tonight, what's the weather, or order me this from Amazon, but it's voice activated. So we know that you can easily manipulate that through hacking into that device, and then hear everything everyone's says in their house and listen to their conversation. You would think when that was developed, that would have been thought through and said, we need to make sure you can't do that. But they don't do that because they want to get the product out, there's a return on investment, the marketing people want it out, and security becomes the last thing to designing the technology.
[00:21:41] Will: I'm just worried about when we're all microchipped and, and what's going to happen with with that. When all our information is stored somehow without having to carry a computer or a phone or a laptop around.
[00:21:50] Frank Abagnale: I went on a flight to London a few weeks ago, and normally when I get on the boarding line, you go up and the ticket agent looks at your ticket and looks at your passport, and then tells you to go ahead and board.
[00:22:02] Will: Right.
[00:22:03] Frank Abagnale: Well when I, this was at uh Atlanta. I went up to the ticket counter to get onboard, the lady just said, "Look into that camera." And I looked in, and she goes, "Go ahead and board." It was facial recognition.
[00:22:14] Will: I've never seen that at the airport.
[00:22:15] Frank Abagnale: And that was Delta Airlines, that's who does this. It's not a secret, and many people have seen it already. You go overseas now, they're just, Delta has my face, so they look at it, and they identify me through my passport which they already have a record of, my driver's license, which is public records through motor vehicle. They take all that data and immediately know who I am and confirm it's me. So they didn't even ask to see my passport, they didn't ask to see my boarding pass, I just walked on the plane. Two seconds look in the camera, and, and that was it. So we're already using facial recognition technology to simply see someone and go to the public database, which is the driver's licenses, and match that person to their driver's license, and then, if they have a passport, match them to their passport and say, yes, this is Frank Abagnale at Reagan Airport going through security.
[00:23:04] Will: Wow.
[00:23:04] Frank Abagnale: So we're already, we're already there when it comes to how much they know and how much they see.
[00:23:09] Will: I had no idea.
[00:23:10] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.
[00:23:10] Will: When are we going to get to just scanning our, our eyeball? That's in movies all the time.
[00:23:14] Frank Abagnale: They already do that now, biometrics, you know, to gain access to buildings, your fingerprints, scanning your eyeball.
[00:23:20] Will: That seems cool.
[00:23:21] Frank Abagnale: Uh, yeah. I mean but again, you know, the point is, when will, will there come a time when we're going to give our DNA to VISA, MasterCard or some credit card company? That's when it's going to go...
[00:23:33] Will: Haywire.
[00:23:34] Frank Abagnale: Yeah.
[00:23:35] Will: Well hopefully not, wow. Okay. Alright, Frank, you've uh, successfully made us all a little more skeptical, I'll say, not scared.
[00:23:42] Frank Abagnale: Right, thanks for having me.
[00:23:44] Will: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's Fraud Watch Network helpline at 877-908-3360. Alright, folks, stay safe out there, and remember, you can find us on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Many thanks to our producers, Julie Getz and Brook Ellis, also audio engineer, Julio Gonzales, and of course, my cohost, Frank Abagnale. For The Perfect Scam, I'm Will Johnson.
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