Personal Finance

The FBI's secret weapon against lottery and romance scammers

Key Points
  • A small army of clever romance and lottery scammers, many based in Jamaica, trick elderly Americans out of millions every year.
  • Victim specialists help ease the trauma of financial fraud.
How to avoid lottery scams
How to avoid lottery scams

A small army of clever romance and lottery scammers, many based in Jamaica, trick elderly Americans out of millions every year.

While the often traumatic crime shows little signs of slowing down, the FBI has a secret weapon on its side: Victim Specialist Debbie Deem.

Deem, a 15-year FBI veteran, doesn't knock down doors or freeze bank accounts. Employing her training as a social worker, much of the time, she just listens.

FBI Victim Specialist Debbie Deem

"Many of these victims just don't feel important to anyone anymore," Deem said. "Scammers prey on feelings of hope and purpose and give people a reason to get up in the morning."

As a victim specialist, Deem works closely with investigating agents to ensure that victims are treated with respect, provides information on victim rights, does crisis intervention, gives referrals to services and updates those defrauded on the status of their case.

Dino, 91, who lives just outside Los Angeles (and didn't want his last name used), is typical of the elderly Deem tries to help. He started sending money orders to Jamaica late last year after he was repeatedly contacted by criminals claiming he had won a lottery, but had to send a "fee" to claim the prize.

Dino needed the phantom winnings so he could move his very sick wife to a better care facility, because his own medication is costing him thousands. Dino's young roommate Edward — who calls Dino his adoptive grandfather — did everything he could to stop the flow of money, yet nothing worked.

"The calls never stop coming in. He is so locked onto this. It's so bad that he even tries to hide from me. He goes into the restroom or his room and talks silently so I won't hear him," said Edward, who also asked that his last name not be used.

"I show him YouTube videos and news reports and people that have had the same problem and he says to me, 'They're not all scammers.' I don't know what to do."

After a bunch of web searching, Edward recently reached out to Deem. Now, she and Dino talk roughly once a week.

"If you are going to help [victims], you have to replace whatever they are getting out of the scam," she said.

Sadly, the elderly are easy marks.

They are often isolated and depressed, making any contact a welcome break to the day's boredom. Research suggests the part of the brain that makes people skeptical is among the first to atrophy. Medications can even play a part, Deem said. And growing ranks of retired Americans make for a target-rich environment.

Federal law enforcement agents have taken notice. Earlier this year, the Justice Department extradited a group of Jamaicans to North Dakota, alleging they tricked at least 90 people out of more than $5.7 million. That investigation began after a North Dakota woman lost $300,000.

Arrests are rare

Arrests are rare, however, and those numbers barely hint at the scale of the crime. Steve Baker, a retired Federal Trade Commission investigator who publishes the Baker Fraud Report, estimates that as much as $1 billion is sent annually by Americans to Jamaican scammers — two-thirds of it sent by victims over 70.

The effects can be devastating.

Some victims lose all their retirement funds or take out second mortgages, Deem said. There have been suicides and murders, she said, though statistics are unreliable.

Deem's first challenge is to get victims like Dino to put her phone number on speed dial. Whenever he has the urge to buy another money order, Dino is supposed to call Deem. It works, most of the time. But there have been relapses. There is no one-time fix, she warns.

"You can't just say, 'Bad, bad seniors. Stop this. Don't do it again,' and think that's going stop it. It doesn't," she said. "It's a process, like falling for a scam is a process."

Deem also works with sex trafficking victims and employs some of the same strategies with the elderly, including the "stages of change" model. Deem thinks elder scam victims are very much like other addicts.

You have to make them glad to call you, not worried that you will yell at them.
Debbie Deem
FBI victim specialist

"Most changes are a transition. Most people don't just decide one day to change something and do it. This allows for people to relapse," she said. "Most behaviors work like that."

Usually, by the time Deem meets victims, they are knee-deep in trouble and don't know whom to believe — or they believe only the scammer. She recently got called in to help with an elderly victim who had thrown adult protective service agents out of his home.

Watch out for scammers looking for money—not love—online
Watch out for scammers looking for money—not love—online

The man wouldn't let Deem into his house when she arrived, so she spent half an hour talking to him through his closed front door. Eventually, she wore him down enough so he let her inside, but just to see his video collection.

"That first time, we didn't talk about scams at all," she said. "It's really important to meet people where they are. You have to make them glad to call you, not worried that you will yell at them."

Family members trying to deal with the problem must not only stop the flow of cash, but more importantly, find a way to replace the behavior.

"Often, these folks are talking to scammers two to six times each day. That's a big chunk of their lives. We really have to be careful what we are taking away," she said. "If you are going to help them, you have to replace whatever they are getting out of the scam."

What families should do

Talk often with elderly relatives about money. If something seems wrong, state adult protective services departments often have resources to help.

Ultimately, it might be necessary to take control of financial accounts, perhaps with a lawyer's help. Deem favors trying the least restrictive technique first. Two-factor authentication on bank accounts might be enough to dissuade an impulsive money transfer, for example.

"Safety planning" is also essential, she said. Victims should have a plan for precisely what to do when a scammer calls.

Edward says things are much better for Dino now that Deem is his safety plan, but he still ends up buying money orders at the local convenience store once in a while.

"I think for the rest of his life, he will be at risk," Deem said.