Burlington Free Press - Vermont, phone company launch fight against phone scammers
Burlington Free Press
Vermont, phone company launch fight against phone scammers
FairPoint, Attorney General's Office warn Vermonters to beware plots seeking money originating in Jamaica
5:38 PM, Nov 14, 2012
Sam Hemingway - Free Press Staff Writer
The president of FairPoint Communications’ operations in Vermont is stepping up efforts to fight a sophisticated Jamaican phone-scamming operation suspected of ripping off thousands of dollars from hundreds of Vermonters annually since 2009.
Michael K. Smith, who met with the authorities in Kingston, Jamaica, last weekend regarding the issue, said Wednesday he will travel to Washington, D.C., later this month to visit Capitol Hill and press for legislation to make it easier for the Justice Department to target off-shore phone-scamming suspects.
“We need more coordination between local and federal law enforcement,” Smith said. “We need an extradition treaty for these types of scams.”
To date, he said, few of the phone scammers have been caught, and their victims have not been compensated for their losses.
Smith said the phone-scamming, while nationwide in scope and involving $300 million in losses annually, specifically has targeted elderly people in the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
“The reason they focus on here is demographics,” Smith said. “Maine has the oldest average age in the country, and Vermont is No. 3.”
FairPoint is a major provider of phone service in northern New England and, in April, launched a website called Bewareof876.com designed to raise awareness about the problem. The area code for Jamaica is 876.
Jason Duquette-Hoffman, project coordinator for the Vermont Attorney General’s Office consumer assistance program, said his office receives about 200 complaints a year related to phone scams originating in Jamaica. Many more people also might have been victimized but don’t tell anyone because they are embarrassed, he said.
“Usually, the scam starts with a phone caller telling the victim he or she has won money, a car, an inheritance,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “They are looking to have the person send in funds in anticipation of a great payout.”
At first, he said, the phone calls are friendly. Later, the calls become threatening, replete with warnings that the FBI or the IRS will be called if certain taxes and fees aren’t paid Most people end up losing a few hundred dollars to $1,000 before they realize the promises of big money are false, Duquette-Hoffman said. Some victims have lost in excess of $100,000. One person in Rutland lost more than $500,000, Smith said.
“Lately, we’re seeing an increase in boldness,” Duquette-Hoffman said. “We had a case in the Brattleboro area where, after the victim was tipped off that this was a scam and shut down their phone number, the Jamaican scammer called a local taxi company and asked them to make a ‘welfare check’ on the victim.”
The taxi firm dispatched a cab to the person’s home, but a Brattleboro police officer happened to be there at the time, took the phone from the cab driver and confronted the caller, Duquette-Hoffman said.
Smith said he decided to wage a campaign to increase awareness of the phone scam after listening to a recording of an telephone exchange between a Jamaican man and a Maine woman.
In the recording, accessible on the Bewareof876.com website, the man can be heard pressing the woman to send more money.
At one point, the woman became emotional and told the caller, “I don’t know what to do because I have no money, and the bills come in, and I got my tax bill. I don’t have any oil, and it’s freezing here. It’s getting cold now, and I can’t warm up my house.”
Smith, a former Navy SEAL, said he was deeply moved by the woman’s predicament.
“I can just imagine this happening to my 80 year old mother,” he said.