WASHINGTON – Jamaican authorities have reportedly agreed to extradite to the U.S. individuals involved in a lottery scam that is bilking hundreds of millions of dollars from senior citizens across the nation, including hundreds of victims in Maine.Jamaican officials made the assurances to U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica Pamela Bridgewater. She, in turn, conveyed the news to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., on Wednesday, Nelson's office said.
"We have a full commitment and I am fully assured, once indicted, these criminals will head off to our shores," Bridgewater told Nelson in a phone conversation, according to an account released by the senator's office.
Nelson and Maine Sen. Susan Collins -- respectively chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Special Committee on Aging -- have been pushing Jamaican officials to indict and then extradite scam artists operating out of Jamaica to send a signal to other scammers.
Collins and Nelson also have called on U.S. law enforcement agencies to step up efforts to combat the crime rings and assist victims.
Although the so-called "Jamaican lottery scam" is just one of countless scam targeting U.S. citizens, the crime rings behind it have proven particularly relentless and effective.
Maine law enforcement officials have said they know of roughly 200 victims in Maine that have lost an average of $60,000 to $70,000, although they suspect the number of victims is much higher. The criminals appear to target areas with large elderly populations -- such as Florida and northern New England. Officials put nationwide losses at up to $300 million.
In late March, the Jamaican Parliament passed new laws criminalizing such scams with penalties of up to 25 years in prison. Passage of the bills came roughly two weeks after the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on the issue in Washington and the scams received widespread media attention in the U.S., which is Jamaica's largest trade partner.
On Wednesday, Collins repeated her assertions that the Jamaican government has "turned a blind eye to this fraud" for years.
"I am deeply troubled that it has taken Jamaica so long -- years -- before getting serious about this problem that has robbed so many elderly Americans of their savings and their dignity," Collins said in a statement.
The scams typically start small, with calls informing victims that they won the lottery, a new car or some other sweepstakes. After repeated and ever-more reassuring calls, the scammers convince the victim -- often widows or widowers living alone -- to send a few hundred dollars to cover taxes or fees to claim their prize.
They then extort more money from the victim, first by befriending them and then eventually with dozens of harassing and threatening calls per day.
The scam artists often seek to ostracize victims from their family and friends.
Some victims in Maine have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Family members, law enforcement officials and representatives for phone provider FairPoint Communications frequently complain that federal authorities are not doing enough to address the crimes.