Some Lotto Scamming Context
Earlier this year I was home and I answered the house phone, which is unusual for me. On the other end of the line was a woman telling me that she was calling to talk about lowering the interest rates on my credit cards. That alone gave me pause. For as long as I’ve had the pesky things, not once has any company offered to lower my interest rates. Instead, I call a few times a year to ensure that I’m getting the lowest rate possible. So 30 seconds into the call I was already on alert. I asked her where she got my information from and she gave me a long explanation that didn’t ring true (she wasn’t calling from any bank I do or did business with). She ended her pitch saying that to investigate whether I could get lower interest rates she’d need my social security number. Pause, record scratch: say what? If nothing else in the call would have deterred me that request certainly would have. When I got my social security card I was told to memorize the number and put the card away and to be careful about giving the number out. So, I ended the call by asking for a phone number at which I could reach her. She gave me a 1-800 number. Neither she nor any company offering to lower my rates has called me back. But you know what else gave me pause during that phone call? And it shames me to say it but it is that the lady had a Jamaican accent.
When Dan Rather went to Jamaica and was escorted through Montego Bay to gather information for his story on lotto scamming by Jamaicans, there was a lot of chatter. His program aired after I received that phone call but I wasn’t in the mood to watch (I only watched it yesterday). Around the time of its airing I did note, however, that there were laments ranging from Jamaica becoming the Nigeria of the Caribbean to “laux, our dirty laundry is on display” and “this is going to mess with our image.” A curious comment I saw a few times was about the program being free on iTunes (it still is free by the way) and the assertion that because the program was free, there was some unkind intent toward Jamaica. At the time I smiled and wondered why so much concern about image and how had that kind of intent been divined from a simple “free”? I understand the consternation about: it’s a big deal and it looks bad. I mean only a few weeks before I’d marked a fellow countrywoman’s voice as a negative; I had quietly mourned that my accent had become, even to me, a signal to be cautious.
But I figure if you’re fleecing people out of their money and you’ve been caught: too bad, so sad. I also wondered whether those who were angry about the focus on Jamaicans involved in lotto scamming were being fair or honest with themselves. But I tucked the issue into the back of my mind to percolate. Then a few weeks — maybe a month or two — after the Dan Rather piece aired I heard a series on aging and abuse on my local NPR station (shout out to WAMU!). The series covered everything from neglect and medical care for the aging to financial exploitation of the aging. Something clicked in my head when the series focused on financial exploitation of the elderly and how difficult it is to detect but how much of a focus is on it. I thought back to my albeit cursory observations around the time of Rather’s report and realized that two key pieces of context seemed to be missing from the analysis about the lotto scamming schemes anchored in Jamaica. I hadn’t seen much if anything about America’s demographics and the AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons).
First the AARP. The AARP is mentioned in Mr. Rather’s report but it’s early on and I wonder if many people remembered it by the middle of the report. He talks about their Seattle fraud office, the army of volunteers who talk to people alleging that they’ve been defrauded…and he casually mentions the AARP membership: 38 million people. As of July 2013, the U.S. population is estimated at 316 million. So the AARP’s membership is about 12% of the country’s total population (or almost 14 times the Jamaican population). In other words: the organization is large and the issues it takes up cannot be ignored. Old(er) people matter.
When I moved here 15 years ago I lived with my father. He was nowhere near retirement age yet received a monthly AARP magazine. There were ads about mechanized wheel chairs, insurance plans, and financial planning. But it struck me as so odd that a man his age would be getting a magazine for retirees. I mean, his dad received the magazine too but he was actually retired. I remember joking with him about this, asking if ah suh him ol’ and he just smiled and said something like retirement time will be here before I knew it and that the AARP is simply preparing him. He read the magazines when he had the time; he never unsubscribed or tossed them out. But you know what I realized after a while? That the AARP was also preparing me and my siblings…even though (traditional) retirement is over 35 years away for any of us. We already know that there is an organization out there able and ready to meet our needs when we get to a certain age. I wouldn’t be surprised if the AARP website contains information for someone like me — in her early 30s — about planning for my retirement, something that’s over 35 years away. Subtly but skilfully, the AARP planted itself in my consciousness; they weren’t just the folks advertising on Lifetime and during Golden Girls reruns. Old age wasn’t just about yelling “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”, spoiling grandchildren, finally being able to travel, or fiddling around the house and driving a spouse crazy. Instead, it’s also become a time to look forward to and a time during which I’m assured of help and attention should I need it.
So imagine that powerful, far-reaching organization becoming aware that is constituents are the targets and victims of a swindle from some developing country. To be sure, defrauding seniors is not done only Jamaicans in Montego Bay; fraud of various varieties is perpetrated by Americans against Americans from right here in this country (consider the insidious pension advance). But our accents are noticeable and the sheer gall and structure of the swindle is breathtaking. It’s sophisticated too but, I think, that only makes law enforcement want to break it up even more. The AARP must act — and it undoubtedly did by working with overburdened law enforcement to gather information or to do training, by contacting local and federal elected representatives, by building a database of fraud stories and analyzing them for some government agency’s future use — using its considerable power to push for action on its membership’s behalf.
Which leads me to the second bit of context: America’s growing aging population, the Baby Boomers. It may be commonplace to hear the phrase “Baby Boomers” tossed around but that demographic is treated as anything but common. We’ve all joked about the number of old people living in the southern United States, especially Florida, and wondered whether they should still be allowed to drive. But that growing demographic — roughly those born after WWII between 1946 and 1964 — is treated with healthy respect because of the impact their aging will have on American society. A lot of folks are aging out of the workforce at the same time. Many of them will have serious health complaints but will still live longer than perhaps was expected when they were born. Curiously too is that their children are not far behind them (in terms of traditional retirement) and they too will live for a long time. In other words, a lotto scammer’s pool of potential victims is expanding and will remain large for a long time. Important to the discussion of Baby Boomers too is the precariousness of retirement accounts and of America’s social security fund and frauds like lotto scamming are a very serious threat to many Americans. If what the Rather piece suggests about the effect of age on the brain’s ability to resist (charismatic) overtures because of a propensity to view things in a positive light is true, then it is even more urgent that any threat to senior citizens’ financial security is dealt with. And I’m glad that Rather introduced this element into the piece because I’m tired of hearing people dismiss con artists’ illegal behavior by talking about how people “chose” to send the money or by branding a victim as gullible or greedy and thereby deserving of punishment. Listen, I don’t deny that victims chose to send money but let’s not act as if there wasn’t coercion and manipulation by preying upon people’s vulnerability involved. Scammers and their brethren may not have been privy to the neurological research about perception but it’s clear that they understood how to manipulate; they understand human nature. An easy vulnerability to manipulate is the drive for independence (both asserting that one has it and demonstrating possession of it). From “independent single women” to the Granny who insists on driving herself to church we’ve all experienced it and I think we know in which demographic it’s hardest to confront. Elderly people do not want to be burdens to their children. They are stubborn. And they especially want to control their own finances. So I guess that’s another wrinkle to add to the understanding of the growing pool of potential victims (in the U.S.): that over time it may become harder to address incidences of fraud because it’s likely that more cases will go unreported (remember that according to Rather already 90% of fraud against the elderly is unreported). The pressure to root out this problem is pressing and it’s not letting up any time soon.
Why are these two key facts important context for the discussion by Jamaicans about lotto scamming? Because it’s helpful for us to know and to understand that the focus on lotto scamming likely isn’t going away any time soon. It’s helpful to realize that this push is likely to survive several Administrations and Congresses and that the focus and pressure on Jamaica (and any other country involved in fraud that preys on American seniors) is also likely to be sustained and may even increase. The pressure dovetails with efforts to address suspect schemes hatched here, like the pension advance business. It’s helpful to know that the AARP and its membership likely don’t care two kicks about Jamaica’s image, “brand,” or the difficulty of prosecution because of inadequate legislation or resources. The AARP cares about ensuring that its large membership is informed and protected. Getting elderly people to stop replying to announcements about prize winnings when that info is sent in the mail is one thing; getting them to hang up when an unfamiliar accent is on the other end of the line asking for money for fees is comparably much easier.
Our accents are now the example of caution, image be damned. For Jamaicans this can’t just be about image or investigating the cultural responses to lotto scamming (i.e. fraud versus reparations). Nor can we afford to myopically focus on “big bad” America trying to get back money that gullible people gave away, or about American bullying to push through legislation in record time (and there’s a lesson in this that can benefit us, will we learn it?). Our understanding of lotto scamming and our involvement in it is better understood by accepting that this is a serious problem for American officials and that their focus is being driven by something over which they have no control, their aging population. And we must understand that American officials won’t be allowed to brush off this issue because the victims of this crime have a powerful organization on their side.
It is the magnitude of this issue not ill will why this episode of Rather’s show is free. The folks who need to watch it will be able to.