SCAMMING is big money. It has made many ordinary, impoverished, uneducated Jamaicans very rich. Students still in high school have been known to become multimillionaires overnight.
In Western Jamaica, moreso St James, which has been regarded as the “capital of scamming”, raw cash, United States dollars changed out into Jamaican dollars, has helped to transform the parish’s socio-economic landscape which has seen many hillsides, upscale residential areas, as well as some inner-city areas, become dotted with palatial dwellings. And many a bright-eyed young man, boasting a bleached-out face and a tattooed body, can be seen driving the most expensive vehicles with wild abandon along our main roads.
But with big money has come the shedding of much blood, corruption in high and low places, debauchery, and ostentatious lifestyles that have bred envy (bad mind), greed, lasciviousness, and lawlessness. For many years, successive governments seemingly turned a blind eye to the popular lotto scam, or sweepstakes as it was originally called. It has even been alleged that political parties and churches have benefited from the ill-gotten gains, whether directly or indirectly. In the same way the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been whipping the country into shape in terms of its management of the economy and the practice of good governance, the United States has come down hard on this little island state, insisting that it must take draconian steps to deal with this widescale scam that has seen many of its citizens, especially the elderly and ailing, being hoodwinked out of their savings and nest eggs.
But, while this Portia Simpson Miller Administration should be commended for the many successful inroads it has been making in putting a serious dent in this most lucrative criminal activity, it should be mindful that it is likely to pay a heavy price at the polls, as many potential voters do not support the fight against lotto scamming. It is a form of reparation, they say. Poor people are benefiting to the extent that mothers, church sisters, girlfriends, and even very young students are being used to collect or transport cash. And the more the authorities move in on the scammers, the more innovative and elusive they become.
National Security Minister Peter Bunting is no doubt aware of the potential backlash and has sought to use moral suasion by way of his highly touted ‘Unite for Change’ campaign. But is this enough? Well, it has been said that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and the harsh reality is that many individuals who had become rotten rich, and by extension their relatives and friends, will now have to go back to living ordinary lives. No using of a thousand- dollar bill to light a cigarette, no more heavy consumption of Hennessey and other big money liquor which was sometimes used to sprinkle high-end vehicles; no wild, expensive parties; no in-your-face cavorting downtown showing off the latest fashion and jewellery; no more long lines at Western Union or other remittance outlets with rogue cops waiting nearby to pounce on the unsuspecting collectors relieving them of their wads of cash.
The killings, too, have dissipated somewhat. Murders were committed because the money was not shared properly, or envious friends felt that they were not generously treated. Some who collected also siphoned off portions of the filthy lucre before delivery and subsequently paid the price for their greed and selfish behaviour. Then there were the reprisals in addition to violent robberies with intent to take down well-heeled scammers.
As the cops have increased the heat on the scamming network in St James and nearby parishes, the guilty parties have migrated far and wide, including relocating to other Caribbean destinations. “Mules” have also been used to travel overseas to collect these monies and bring the loot back to Jamaica. Interestingly, at a recent function in Montego Bay, a distinguished banker made the observation that the economy in the second city was booming. He went on to say in the presence of Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips and other major players in the business and finance sector that, in the entire Caribbean and Latin America, the island’s tourism capital was seen as one of the most thriving in terms of overall development. Amidst the applause and smiling faces, there were some sotto voce remarks with one individual opining, “Thanks to lotto scamming!”
Truth be told, government has an obligation to seriously look at ways and means to provide alternative means of income for the citizenry of St James, in particular, where there is growing resentment towards the Portia Simpson-led Administration because it is felt that a fight against lotto scamming is deleterious to poor people who want to “eat a food”.
“Nutten nah gwan fi wi, and dis is di only ting dat mi see right now can take the youth dem out of poverty,” declared an elderly man who spoke from the posh verandah of a swanky dwelling his scammer son built for himself and his family. Many young men have also told this writer that certain police officers have told them during raids and other anti-lotto scam operations that it is “Portia send them to mash up the scamming business”.
Against this background, it is my view that Government should introduce some meaningful programmes to engage the youth in training and job opportunities. Values and attitudes and/or character education ought to be placed centre stage so as to encourage and influence the youth in a way that they will fully understand why scamming should not be the path to take. It will not be an easy task, as the get-rich-quick, live-fast-die-young mentality has become pervasive. Many youths in the ghetto will tell you that they do not expect to live past 25 years old, so their focus from an early age is immediate gratification.
Small island states such as Jamaica will continue to face serious socio-economic problems because of the lack of job opportunities and a general sense of hopelessness because of the glaring inequities in income as well as the lack of economic and social justice. At a time when the fiscal space is tight and Government is forced to cut its spending — no more “run with it” — this will remain a most serious challenge. The issue becomes even more in-your-face against the backdrop of pending local and general elections. Will the PNP resist the “handout” approach, and will the JLP take advantage of this vulnerable situation, pandering to populist policies and pronouncements? The die is cast.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People’s National Party or the Government of Jamaica.