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Operation JOLT targets fake lottery scams and sweepstakes

HARTFORD — The United States Postal Inspection Service and Connecticut Better Business Bureau have embarked on a campaign to prevent further monetary losses in fake lottery scams and sweepstakes.

Much of this type of telemarketing fraud originates in Jamaica. The USPIS has been working with Jamaica’s legislators and law enforcement in a program called Project “JOLT” for Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing. The Project JOLT collaboration has disrupted and shut down several of the telemarketing operations, which funnel money to Jamaican gangs and help finance drug and weapons smuggling.

In a typical example, a caller will tell victims they have won a multimillion dollar international lottery or sweepstakes, but they first must send money to cover fake “fees” or “taxes” before they can collect their winnings. Victims are instructed to send cash by mail, stashed in a magazine or book to conceal the money. Unfortunately, the would-be lotteries and sweepstakes are fake, and the money disappears into the hands of Jamaican gangs.

The USPIS says money is then routed through a network of other victims here in the United States before it finally leaves the country. Typically it is mailed via Priority Mail Express, the post office’s fastest service, with the criminals’ goal of leaving investigators the shortest possible amount of time to intercept the money.

“Consumers lose tens of millions of dollars through telemarketing fraud,” according to Connecticut Better Business Bureau spokesman Howard Schwartz. “Project JOLT is working to stop the Caribbean operations, bring the criminals to justice and recover victims’ money. Consumers can do their part by knowing how these scams work, and taking measures to ignore these sorts of calls.”

Efforts to shut down these illegal operations have paid off handsomely. Since 2010, Project JOLT has resulted in dozens of arrests, indictments and convictions, both overseas and in the United States.

“When the U.S. Mail is used to commit mail fraud, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service will commit the resources necessary to properly investigate and bring the case forward for prosecution,” according to Emily Spera, U.S. Postal Inspector, Boston Division. “This is one of the many ways we ensure the public’s trust in the U.S. Mail. Postal Inspectors will continue to investigate cases involving fraud against consumers and vigorously pursue those individuals who use the mail to further their criminal schemes.”

During a search of one suspect’s residence, investigators found lists of victims’ names and addresses, as well as computers, cell phones and money order receipts. Investigators also recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, returned more than $251,800 to victims and continues attempts to repatriate the money to victims.

The Better Business Bureau and the USPIS are working together to get the word out to consumers, to protect themselves from this sort of telemarketing fraud:

You cannot win if you didn’t enter – Regardless of what a caller says, you cannot win a sweepstakes or lottery you didn’t enter. In addition, consumers should be wary of communications claiming you inherited money, but have to pay “fees” to collect.
It’s easy to spot a prominent red flag – Whether it is a lottery or any other person-to-person transaction, beware of demands to pay by an untraceable method such as a wire transfer or gift cards, and never send cash through the mail.

Screen all incoming calls – Get a non-published telephone number and install an answering machine with a caller ID display. Pick up only if you personally know the caller. Otherwise, let the call roll to the answering machine. Teach everyone in your household to do the same.

Limit personal information that you share online – Today more than ever, people share large amounts of personal information on social media. Details about family, professional lives and schedules help scammers effectively target victims. Scammers have practiced the same lines over and over again. They know just what to say to make their victims trust them. They are solicitous, courteous, and even flirtatious.

Just hang up – These criminals don’t hesitate to threaten, coerce, or resort to psychological intimidation. They use technology to look at images of the victim’s house or apartment. Armed with these details, the scammer will describe a victim’s house or building with great accuracy. It’s all part of the scam. The criminal wants the victim to think he is just outside, and ready to follow up on any threats he’s made.

Improve your odds – Older Americans are often targeted by these scammers. Take the time to speak with your loved ones about foreign lotteries. A simple conversation could protect their financial well-being.

Consumer education is the key to protecting yourself from these scams. The USPIS and Better Business Bureau urge you to share this information not only with family members, but also friends, colleagues and neighbors. As more people become aware of how these operations work, hopefully the criminals will realize these illegal schemes simply aren’t worth the trouble, and their funding well will dry up.