Driven to death by phone scammers
(CNN) — The phone calls wouldn’t stop. The man on the other end of the line made promises of a big payoff: millions of dollars in prize money. But first the IRS needed $1,500 in taxes, he insisted, then the jackpot would arrive at the family home, a camera crew ready to capture the excitement.
The calls came a couple of times a day; other times, nearly 50.
Mr. Albert, we need the money to be sent today …
Don’t hang up the phone, Mr. Albert …
Mr. Albert, don’t tell your wife about this …
Albert Poland Jr. had worked 45 years for the Burlington hosiery factory in Harriman, Tennessee, starting off as a mechanic before rising to become a quality control manager.
He and his wife, Virginia, were living a humble life in the Appalachian foothills near Knoxville, having raised a son and daughter in their 62 years of marriage. The family patriarch was known simply as Daddy.
At age 81, his mind was faltering. He suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia. And the caller — a man in Jamaica — preyed on that vulnerability.
Poland’s lucidity fluctuated. In February, he went to the local police station and asked if they could make the phone calls from the 876 area code stop. Another time, he went to the post office to send money to his caller. The teller stopped him, talked with him and handed him a brochure on Jamaican lottery scams. He thanked her.
His family tried to intervene numerous times. On one of his good days, he told his wife simply, “I’m in too deep.”
On March 21, the caller asked for $1,500. Poland withdrew the maximum $400 from his ATM and sent it via Western Union. He was sure he was going to win more than $2 million. He hoped to pay off his son’s mortgage and help his family for years to come.
His son, Chris Poland, was livid when his mother told him his father was talking with the caller again. Chris, 53, had had the same conversation for months with his dad; his father had sent more than $5,000 to the caller. Chris spoke with his father like most any son would. “Daddy, you taught me the value of the dollar. Why are you giving money away?”
As father and son talked by cell phone, the Jamaican called back on Poland’s land line.
Mr. Albert …
The next morning, a Sunday, was like a repeat record. More calls and another tense phone conversation between father and son.
Virginia got dressed for church. Her husband decided to stay home.
It was a beautiful spring morning, with temperatures hovering around 60 degrees and the trees a lush green. Poland strolled around his yard. A neighbor waved: “Looks like we’re gonna have to start mowing soon.”
“Yeah, looks like it,” Poland said.
He walked to the basement of the family home. He carried with him a snub-nose .38 revolver.
In his suicide note, Poland told his family not to spend much on his funeral and said he hoped when more than $2 million arrived tomorrow, it would vindicate him.
Albert Poland was in the grips of a Jamaican lottery scammer — part of a cottage industry that targets nearly 300,000 Americans a year, most of them elderly, and has enticed them to send an estimated $300 million annually to the Caribbean island nation.
AARP has run campaigns warning about the scams originating from the Jamaican 876 area code. The U.S. Postal Service has published pamphlets and distributed them around the country. The Senate Special Committee on Aging held hearings two years ago about the magnitude of the problem and urged U.S. and Jamaican authorities to do more.
“The Jamaican lottery scam is a cruel, persistent and sophisticated scam that has victimized seniors throughout the nation,” says Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee’s chairwoman. “It is truly heartbreaking that this scam has robbed seniors of hundreds of millions of dollars.”
It’s such a huge problem in Jamaica that the scams have been dubbed the highest level Tier 1 threat — a “clear and present danger” to national security, says Peter Bunting, Jamaica’s national security minister.
From children to the nation’s most tech savvy 20-somethings, from a former deputy mayor of Montego Bay to the most vicious gang members, lottery scams have left few segments of the island nation untouched.
“It is extremely corrosive to the fabric of society,” Bunting says. “We have seen where it has corrupted police officers. It has corrupted legitimate business persons who end up playing some role in laundering money.”
The Poland family first spoke to CNN in April. Investigators are looking into Albert Poland’s case and hope to provide some solace to the family soon; for now, his scammer remains at large.
From there, CNN followed the money, traveling to ground zero of the scams, Montego Bay, where we witnessed a police raid of a suspect’s house.
In Jamaica, more than 200 deaths a year have been tied to the scams. And in the United States, the scams have cost people their lives — and their life savings.
Trial marks U.S. first
Edna Schmeets looks like she’s straight out of “The Golden Girls” central casting: a grandma with curly gray hair and a 5-foot-2 frame. At 86, she’s soft-spoken yet opinionated.
Just a month after Albert Poland took his life in Tennessee, Schmeets faced down her scammer in federal court in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Sanjay Ashani Williams started off as a scammer around 2008, making calls to elderly Americans. He eventually graduated to buying and selling caller lists — reams of information containing the names and numbers of tens of thousands of potential victims.
Williams made more than $5 million on his operation, the government said. His case marked the first U.S. trial of what officials call a “lead list scammer.”
In addition to dealing in lists, Williams continued making calls himself, including to Schmeets.
“He said I had won this $19 million from American Cash Awards and that I would have to, you know, pay taxes on this money before they would release it,” Schmeets testified, according to trial transcripts. “And they kept calling about sending another check and another check and another check. I mean, it just kept on and on until I had both my life insurances gone, all my savings. Everything.
“I just had lost everything.”
She sent checks for $65,000, $57,000 and $20,000 over the course of the next nine months.
How much did she lose total?
“Oh my goodness,” she testified. “When I figured it out, it was about $297,000.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Clare Hochhalter probed, “Did you become suspicious after you kept sending money and you didn’t get your prize?”
“Yes, I did,” Schmeets replied.
But she said she was told not to tell anyone “about this until you get your winnings, your $19 million. Then, you can tell everybody.”
Why keep sending money?
Because, Schmeets testified, she was told she would get “all your money back, plus the $19 million.”
Schmeets and her husband, Lawrence, had been married 62 years. They lived on a small cattle farm. Her husband worked in the railroad industry; she clerked at a grocery store to bring in extra cash. They raised five children: four boys and one girl. The family had endured tragedy years ago when one of their sons died at age 31.
Her husband died in 2010. Phone calls congratulating her on winning a lottery began in fall 2011 and continued through June 2012.
Her motivations for wanting the money were simple: “I was going to just give it to my children.”
Instead, all that she and her husband had worked for was gone.
She glanced occasionally across the room at Williams. He never returned her gaze. Instead, she said, he rifled through a garbage bag containing hundreds of pages of court documents. He was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, with a bushy beard and braids piled on top of his head.
She thought about how different he was than the person she had envisioned. “He seemed like such a nice guy on the phone,” Schmeets would say later.
Williams operated out of Montego Bay and established an intricate network of runners based in Charlotte, North Carolina, to pick up money and send it to him.
His website, gamblerslead.com, was a goldmine for scammers seeking phone numbers for elderly Americans. Authorities studied more than 500,000 emails connected to the site, an FBI agent testified.
Authorities discovered Williams was buying lists at wholesale on the black market, where they can go for up to $5,000 and contain tens of thousands of names. He then carved up the lists and sold names and numbers to callers for $5.50 apiece.
Thirty-two people in the United States and Jamaica were indicted in the scheme. Eleven pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, seven are awaiting trial and 14 are awaiting extradition. According to authorities, many pretended to be FBI agents, bank personnel and IRS workers to convince people their lottery winnings were real.
Seventy-two Americans, all older than 55, were identified as losing money in Williams’ operation.
William Porter, 94, was a fighter pilot in World War II in the Pacific theater. He lost $250,000. Charlotte Davis, 64, was also targeted. She testified she was told by her scammer that if she didn’t send the money he’d rape her daughters and kill her son.
A 72-year-old victim from Odessa, Texas, committed suicide. Prosecutor Hochhalter told CNN it was too difficult legally to bring homicide charges in the case. “But we believe we have the factual evidence to suggest that this offense involved conduct that created a risk of serious bodily injury or death,” Hochhalter said. “And that’s evidenced by the fact that at least one person did commit suicide.”
Williams was combative at the defense table through much of the trial. He said his rights were violated when he was arrested on a trip in North Carolina, and he threw fits that annoyed even his own lawyer. He refused the judge’s recommendation to wear nice clothes in court, instead opting for his prison outfit. He had the same reaction when the judge suggested he might want to consider a plea deal that would result in three to five years in prison.
Instead, Williams placed his fate in the hands of a jury.
His attorney, Charles Stock, tried to make the case that hotels, credit card companies, casinos and other companies buy and sell Americans’ personal information all the time — and that it’s perfectly legal. This is true, the prosecution countered, but it becomes illegal when you knowingly use the information for a crime.
Williams was convicted on an array of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering charges. He faces up to 40 years in prison.
“That was a big relief,” Schmeets told CNN, “to know that he’s going to prison.”
During the trial, an expert from Jamaica’s equivalent of the FBI gave an assessment of just how endemic the scamming has become.
Kevin Watson, a corporal with Jamaica’s Major Organized Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency, or MOCA, told the court many Jamaicans see scamming as “the only source of income for them.”
“In small pockets of communities,” Watson said, “you will find many persons involved in this activity. You will also find children who grew up … to believe that this is OK — it’s OK to get involved in lottery scamming.”
The turquoise water off the coast of Montego Bay serves as a majestic paradise for millions of tourists.
But outside the walls of the resorts, the victims of lottery scams are counted not by sums of money lost, but by an ever growing tally of bodies.
The expansive four-lane highway along Montego Bay’s Resort Row gives way to winding, pothole-filled roads where corrugated tin homes press up against the cracked pavement. Goats straddle the sides of roads barely wide enough for two cars.
It is here in the ghettos that competition for calling lists has turned deadly.
More than 200 Jamaicans a year are killed in connection with lottery scams — a fifth of the killings in the island nation, which has the dubious distinction of being among the most violent countries per capita in the world.
Scammers who sell names and numbers to callers expect a cut of their profits; if they find out they’re being cheated, they’ll hunt down and kill the caller or a member of his family. Other killings occur when rival gang members steal caller lists.
“It’s a cancer in the society,” says Luis Moreno, the U.S ambassador to Jamaica. “Gangs escalate armed competition with each other over who is going to control these lists and who is going to get the best scammers, the best phone numbers, the best phone guys. Even children as young as 10, 12 years old are tied in as couriers.”
In June, a 14-year-old was dragged out of his home and machine-gunned by gang members connected to the scams. The same fate befell a 62-year-old grandmother in July. Two American women were wounded in August at a nightclub when a gang member opened fire on a rival who owed him money. The rival was killed.
“These gangs are often indiscriminate,” says Bunting, the national security minister. “When they come looking for their target, if they don’t find him, they will shoot members of his family to essentially send a message.”
The average Jamaican makes about $300 a month. The top lottery scammers boast of bringing in $100,000 a week. They share videos of washing cars with champagne and show off by setting fire to thousands of dollars in cash.
Scammers justify their actions by calling it reparations for slavery, authorities say.
We’re robbing the rich to pay the poor, scammers think. If someone is stupid enough to send us money, that’s their fault.
“You’re not stealing from the rich to give to the poor,” says Ambassador Moreno. “In fact, you’re victimizing the most vulnerable people of a society — Jamaican as well as the U.S.”
Lottery scamming sprang up between 1998 and 1999 when legitimate American and Canadian call centers set up operations in Montego Bay. Young Jamaicans were trained on how to empathize with customers.
No one could have known those skills would result in today’s flourishing scam business. Kenrick Stephenson, known simply as Bebe, is credited with being the country’s first lottery scammer. His hub sprang out of Granville, one of Montego Bay’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. Bebe trained, recruited and cultivated young scammers.
Mansions popped up, taking over land where squatters dwelled. Expensive cars cruised the streets. Scammers flashed their bling. At the gates of call centers, scammers lurked, offering money to anyone who would provide lead lists.
But even the godfather of lottery scams wasn’t immune to the spiraling violence. Bebe’s life was snubbed out gangland style at the gates of his mansion in the plush Ironshore neighborhood of Montego Bay in May 2014.
Showing how intricately tied scammers are within Jamaican society, Bebe was a prominent gay activist and powerful figure within the ruling People’s National Party. When he was killed, a PNP member said he would be “sadly missed.” His casket was said to be made of gold.
Top officials know the stakes are great. If the violence moves closer to the resorts and scares off visitors, the nation’s economy would crumble. Its multi-billion-dollar tourism industry counts for about 90% of the economy.
“We have to have a zero-tolerance approach,” Bunting says. “We need to establish that this is as much a crime as drug trafficking, as much a crime as if you held up somebody with a gun. It is in some ways even more cruel because of the age and the vulnerability of the victims.”
A Jamaican raid
The sign at the entrance to Rosemount Gardens, a middle- to upper-class neighborhood in Montego Bay, reads: “The law is active here. Take no chances.”
Today, the law is active.
Wham. Wham. Wham. Two agents pound on the front door of a house. The sound echoes around the neighborhood. A dog barks from a nearby house.
One of the agents has a 9 mm machine gun. The other is armed with a Glock handgun. More are standing back. They’ve gotten intelligence that a man inside has earned maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars from scamming.
The house, once a one-room concrete shack, is undergoing extensive renovations, including a new wing and a front porch with intricate floor-to-ceiling grill work — fancy burglar bars to keep intruders out. A mound of sand sits next to the porch. A stucco front wall remains unfinished.
Inside, the suspect grabs a hammer and drives a nail into his laptop, piercing the hard drive. He runs to his bathroom and throws the laptop in a bucket of water in his shower. He begins eating pieces of notebook paper.
The agent with the machine gun kicks open the door and rushes inside. Other agents follow, their Glocks drawn, and go through the house room-to-room.
In seconds, they spot the suspect in a back bedroom. Wearing only gray briefs, he holds his hands in the air and falls down on his bed.
“You get out of bed!” an agent screams.
The suspect moans, a mortified look across his face.
“Right now! Right now! Downnnnnnnn!”
He lies on his stomach on the bedroom floor. An agent handcuffs him. That’s when authorities realize he’s chewing on something.
“Spit it out! Spit out everything!”
An agent pulls out a machete and stands over the suspect, the blade looming over his head. He coughs up pieces of paper with names and numbers.
Authorities allowed CNN to film the raid.
Kevin Watson, the MOCA official who testified at the North Dakota trial, oversees the raid on this August day. Watson is a made-for-Hollywood cop, with slick-backed hair, a million-dollar smile and effusive pride in law enforcement.
Watson stands in the bedroom, the handcuffed suspect next to him. Authorities have found a treasure trove: the laptop, the chewed-up paper, cell phones and a notebook with dozens of names and numbers.
Watson holds up a flip phone and scrolls through the call log. Scammers prefer to use flip phones instead of smartphones to limit their digital footprint. Calls to America were made at 10:42 a.m.; 10:43; 10:46; 10:47. Each call went to a different area code.
“It’s quite unlikely that you know someone from all these states,” Watson says.
He turns to the suspect. “How long have you been involved in lottery scamming?” Watson asks. “I don’t want you to tell me that you’re not involved, because we didn’t come here by chance. If you understand how MOCA works, you understand that we came here because we know what you’re up to. Alright. So how long have you been involved in lottery scamming?”
The suspect says he wishes not to speak. Under further questioning, he acknowledges that he defrauded people a “few years ago.”
“Like how many years?” Watson asks.
“I don’t want to respond,” the suspect says.
“You do understand that we can get all of that information, right? So it would be prudent for you to be honest with us,” Watson replies.
In the suspect’s wallet is the name, address and Social Security number of a 69-year-old man in Wisconsin. The suspect admits he’s never been to Wisconsin.
Investigators log all items seized and bag them. They take away the suspect to be booked and jailed. He has been charged with “knowingly possessing identity information of other persons with intention to commit an offense,” Watson says.
Four years ago, Watson scrapped his IT job for the opportunity to conduct raids like these. At 37, the father of two young children has made targeting lottery scams one of his primary aims.
When he spoke at an elementary school earlier this year, a teacher pulled him aside and told him that 17 of the 35 students in her class wanted to be lottery scammers. He spoke with two boys, ages 7 and 9, who told him they hoped to become scammers so they could drive fancy cars and live in big houses.
Watson’s heart sank. “I was very broken by what I heard,” he recalls. “What lottery scamming is doing is making it look like only thieves live in Jamaica.”
As he leaves the scene of the raid this day, he walks out the broken front door and gives a thumbs up.
“We’re successful with this one,” he says.
Plugging the leaks
Watson and his Jamaican colleagues have begun making headway in the fight, although they admit it will be a long battle.
Law enforcement personnel have met with priests and preachers, business leaders and teachers to talk about the need to stop the scams. Just this year, police have spoken to more than 10,000 children and teens at schools around Montego Bay. Their message: There’s nothing glamorous about stealing from old people or getting executed.
Jamaican authorities and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a joint task force in 2009, called JOLT, to focus on the scams. But there was little the Jamaican Operations Linked to Telemarketing task force could do because the scammers were essentially untouchable. There was little political will to prosecute the scammers and few laws to hold them accountable.
And so, they flourished. One prominent rapper glorified scamming in a song. People could walk down the streets of Montego Bay and hear scammers operating in the open, Watson says.
That changed in 2013 when Jamaican lawmakers passed what has become known as the Lottery Scam Law, giving authorities the tools they need to conduct sweeping raids and keep suspects locked up.
More than 500 arrests have been made since then.
Western Union and Moneygram now closely monitor transactions, especially around Montego Bay. Scammers have begun shifting tactics, using money mules to carry cash directly to them. Sometimes, they talk their victims into sending appliances with cash hidden inside.
Call centers have tightened their operations. Employees get searched before and after their shifts. Cell phones, pens, notepads, CDs, flash drives — everything — gets stored in lockers while they work. Their Internet access at work is strictly controlled.
Workers also undergo lie detector tests once a quarter, get fingerprinted and are warned of the likelihood of jail time if caught working with lottery scams.
Those measures have “completely locked down the leakage of information,” says Yoni Epstein, who heads a trade group representing more than two dozen call centers in Jamaica.
The centers provide tech support, customer relations and other services for companies like Xerox and Amazon. They employ 17,000 Jamaicans.
Scammers no longer wait outside their gates.
Still, caller lists are available online through black markets, authorities say. Leaks can come from disgruntled workers — if not in Jamaica, then in other countries — or from hackers or other criminal enterprises.
History was made earlier this year when a Jamaican was extradited to the United States for the first time on lottery scam charges. Damion Bryan Barrett, 29, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and was sentenced in June to 46 months in prison.
“Before all this, I was just going through a very difficult time. Smoking, drinking, just living,” Barrett told the judge in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. “I just want to go home to my son — be a better person for him, so this won’t happen to him.”
Moreno, the U.S. ambassador, says Barrett’s extradition “sends the message that there’s no way that you can really get away with this.”
Jamaica’s minister of national security agrees. Bunting says Jamaican officials want more suspects extradited because no Jamaican wants to end up in a U.S. prison. When top drug traffickers from Jamaica were extradited to the United States, Bunting says, it cut down tremendously on his nation’s drug trade.
“If we could get maybe a few dozen scammers extradited,” he says, “then it could have a similar chilling effect.”
Authorities pledge more extraditions are on their way.
The calls keep coming
The day after Albert Poland killed himself in Tennessee, neighbors brought casserole dishes and reflected on the man who taught Sunday school for more than 45 years.
The phone rang. Caller ID showed it was from the 876 area code. Then it rang again. And again. And again. More than 40 calls from Jamaica. Poland wasn’t even in the ground yet.
Chris Poland could hardly contain his rage. The son decided to do something. He picked up his father’s phone, placed it on speaker and hit the record button on his cell phone. He pretended to be his father.
The man on the other end said he hoped to deliver millions today. He said he’d received the $400 from Saturday but needed another $1,500.
“Where is your wife right now?”
“She’s at the store,” Chris responded.
“Ah, OK, OK, OK. What I need you to do now, Mr. Albert, is I need you to get your bank card and your identification card and go in the car right now. I’m not going to hang up. OK?”
“But I don’t have a car. She’s in the car,” Chris said.
“Ah, and that’s the car you’d have to use to go to the Western Union and your bank. Right?”
Yes, Chris told him, adding that maybe he could catch a cab.
“That would be more better, because we don’t want your bank to close today and we need to deliver this money,” the man said. “We want to deliver your $2.5 million to you before your bank closes, so you can put it in a safe place. OK?”
“OK,” Chris responded.
“So go outside right now and get a cab. I’m not going to hang up …”
“OK,” Chris said. “Where will I get the money, the $2.5 million?”
“Remember that we took your address from you on Saturday. It’s going to be delivered directly to your doorstep. OK?”
Chris said he needs to hail a cab; the caller promised to call back in 10 minutes. The two hang up.
More than three months after Poland’s death, the calls have not ceased.
Sometimes, Virginia Poland picks up the phone. She found her husband’s suicide note next to his computer. “He was my best friend. He was my buddy. He was just good to me,” she says softly, dabbing tears with a tissue. “When they took him, they took my life, too.”
Once, she told her husband’s scammer that her husband killed himself. The man laughed. She told him to call the funeral home.
CNN’s Drew Griffin and David Fitzpatrick contributed to this story.