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Bill Nelson targets Jamaican scam artists

5:45 AM, Apr 23, 2013   |    comments
Stuart Childers (left), his mother, Betty (center) and his brother, Daniel (right) in a family photo shot at Easter. / Photo provided by Stuart Childers
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WASHINGTON - Stuart Childers felt a familiar sense of dread when the financial adviser handling his mother's account called to alert him she had just withdrawn $40,000.

In 2008, Childers, an Army veteran working as a logistician at Patrick Air Force Base, had rescued his mother, Betty Childers, from the clutches of Jamaican scam artists who had tried to fleece her of thousands of dollars with promises of a multi-million-dollar prize. A year later, Jamaican criminals apparently were again tempting her with a lottery ploy.

By the time her ordeal was over, Childers' mother had lost nearly $300,000. She had maxed out 11 credit cards, had pawned her car and wedding ring, and had faced suspicions of money-laundering.

Childers realized his mother's growing dementia had made her a vulnerable target for the scam artists, who plied her with constant mailings and sometimes called her Lake Buena Vista home dozens of times a day. He said his mother, now 79, is a widow who, like many elderly people living alone, just wanted someone to talk to.

"They just preyed on her," Childers, who lives on the air force base, recalled of the scam artists. "They get people on the phone that are super nice. They're really good at what they do. They make (their victims) comfortable. And then they just friggin' take them for everything they got."

The case has gotten the attention of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Aging. Nelson held a hearing last month examining the threat of Jamaican phone fraud targeting seniors across the nation.

Such scams rob victims of an estimated $300 million a year, said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the committee on aging. A task force launched in 2009 to pursue the Jamaican lottery fraud unearthed 36,000 cases in its first six months of operation.

Nelson and Collins have met with Jamaican diplomats to discuss the need for more action. Last week, they pressed Justice Department officials to extradite Jamaican scam artists who generally have eluded punishment, despite increased cooperation among law enforcement officials from both countries.

"We want to see somebody indicted and then we want to see them extradited to the United States," Nelson said at the hearing. "That will have a chilling effect on a number of those people who think that they are bulletproof."

Steps are being taken to help people before they become victims.

Last month, AARP mailed 25 millions postcards warning about foreign lottery scams.

Western Union has instructed employees to contact people making unusually high-volume money transfers in case they've been victimized by fraud. Childers' mother made more than 300 wire transfers to Jamaica, her son said.

Investigations by the task force, known as Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing (or JOLT), have led to 149 arrests and the seizure of more than $1.2 million. Much of that has been returned to victims.

But Collins dismissed what's been recovered as a "tiny fraction" of what's been taken. And she criticized federal law enforcement officials for not doing more to share "lead lists" of potentially vulnerable victims compiled by and distributed among scammers to identify targets.

"We're a long ways from getting a handle on this," she said.

Others, including local law enforcement officials, have criticized the federal government for moving too slowly.

Stuart Childers could have used the help.

In an interview with the Gannett Washington Bureau, he detailed how his mother got swindled.

It happened in two stages, he said.

In 2008, his mother began receiving crudely produced brochures in the mail from Jamaica advertising a lottery. The letter said all she needed to do was invest some money up front and she eventually would be entitled to lottery winnings. Past "winners" even called her to offer testimonials.

By the time Stuart Childers figured out what happened, his mother had used the 11 credit cards to raise immediate cash. After she lost about $100,000, he helped her file for bankruptcy - and thought the problem was over.

But a year later, Betty Childers started getting phone calls from Jamaica. At first, they seemed innocuous, with no mention of lotteries. After about two months, she started getting mailers asking for small amounts of money -$20 here and $50 there.

Then other men began calling, talking about a lottery. They asked for amounts in the thousands, but always under $10,000 to avoid bank and IRS reporting.

"So, here's my mother," Stuart Childers said. "She's lost 100 grand, She's like, 'Well, I just figured I could get the money back. I could save face.' So she goes along with it. (And) they start in on her again, taking bigger and bigger chunks."

That's when Childers got the call from the financial advisor. This time, his mother lost $180,000, he said.

He decided to take her to a doctor for her dementia, but the day he went to pick her up, he discovered she had pawned her car and wedding ring to raise more money for the lottery scheme.

Even while Betty Childers was wiring money to Jamaica, she was receiving envelopes with money and instructions to repackage the cash and mail it to other "winners" around the country, in places such as Nevada, Pennsylvania and Maryland, her son said. That briefly drew the attention of investigators who thought she may have been laundering money.

"My mom's not a criminal by any means. She thought until the very end that she was doing the right thing," Stuart Childers said. "She even told me, 'But you can't stop. He's going to give me this money.' "

Speaking at last month's Senate hearing, AARP President Robert Romasco said his organization's studies show lottery fraud victims are more likely to be women over 70 who live alone and suffer from cognitive impairment. In other words, people like Betty Childers.

In 2010, Stuart Childers moved his mother to an assisted living center in Brevard County so he could keep a closer watch.

"She's protected and safe now," he said.

FLORIDA TODAY

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