Jamaican-based lottery swindlers target Florida senior citizens

MIAMI -- Florida's senior citizens are falling victim to a Jamaica-based lottery scam that is spreading across the United States, often involving former drug traffickers drawn by the ease of the lucrative crime, U.S. law enforcement officials say.

U.S. postal inspectors and other officials say seniors are being conned out of thousands of dollars in savings by scam artists in Jamaica who promise them huge lottery winnings, sometimes using aggressive and threatening tactics to bully their victims.

"It's despicable that these crooks are preying on our most vulnerable seniors who sometimes have difficulty remembering important details," Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who chairs the Senate's Special Committee on Aging, told a joint press conference on Friday with federal law enforcement officials.

The scam and other similar lottery schemes may be fleecing Americans out of $1 billion annually, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Complaints about the Jamaica-based scam sky-rocketed from 1,867 to 29,000 between 2007 and 2012, according to the FTC. The likely number of victims could be far higher as many scams go unreported by victims because of embarrassment or fear of retaliation, the FTC said.

The Jamaica-based criminals operate with virtual impunity due to the difficulty of tracing the fraud, but U.S. law enforcement is cracking down.

"We are absolutely targeting these crimes," said Alysa Erichs, an investigator with the Department of Homeland Security, saying that a task force is working with Jamaican authorities to track down the lotto fraudsters for extradition.

Nelson and the Senate Aging panel's top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, have scheduled a congressional hearing Wednesday to investigate the impact of the scam.