Are you looking at your tickets to Jamaica and thinking: why on earth did I decide to go there, with its army curfew, state of emergency and spiralling homicide rate? The Jamaican government has just extended its state of emergency until May and has advised tourists not to leave their hotels unaccompanied. But don’t go online just yet to see if you can scrabble some money back on your flight. I am writing this while sipping a rum and listening to laughter and reggae in my local bar a few miles from the picturesque parish of St James, where in the past six months 335 people have been murdered, and no one here, me included, feels the least bit scared.
This is because if you know the background to this new wave of violence, you understand why the tourist, or indeed any law-abiding citizen, has nothing to fear.
Here in western Jamaica we are a world centre of excellence, not just for murder but for one of the world’s fastest-growing global industries: the scamming trade. You could argue that Nigeria, where it originated, competes for the title but the Jamaican industry is in my opinion more innovative. The Jamaicans don’t bother with the discredited Nigerian prince emails. That’s old technology. The telephone is the new tool.
It was a Nigerian who accidentally introduced scamming to Montego Bay, setting up a legitimate call centre whose purpose was to chase up bad debt. This enterprising fellow had bought a lot of unpromising debt from American utilities and retailers, and set a workforce of Jamaicans on phones to harass, cajole or persuade the indebted customers to pony up at least a percentage of what they owed. The company was a success. But something happened in that office that started the epidemic of scamming that has indirectly led to the army going from house to house searching for guns — only a few miles from where I am now sipping my second rum.
What happened in that call centre was that a Jamaican employee rang the wrong number. Without knowing it, they gave their usual spiel about bailiffs, court appearances and credit downgrades to an old woman in the States who actually had no outstanding debts, but she still paid $100 over the phone out of ignorance, fear, or stupidity. From that moment on, the word spread that you didn’t need to buy a debt to collect it, so idiotic were some white people. You just needed a good story. And good stories are what all Jamaicans I know love to tell. A few other factors helped: locals have learnt from tourists not only to imitate an English or American accent but to recognise regional accents and in many cases to mimic them. While they were serving you your piña coladas on the Sea Grape terrace they were listening closely. Jamaicans also justifiably have a somewhat relaxed view about breaking the law; after all, slavery was a fully sanctioned legal arrangement. In addition, 200 years of plantation servitude was long enough to raise to a prestigious art form the activity of bilking some lazy rich white person far away on the other side of the ocean.
The kids have proved particularly good at the job. A few years ago I would walk into the bar I am sitting in now sipping my third rum, and see three teenagers, each with three phones. All of them would be at work weaving their stories to con their clients. Most scams evolve from the simple proposition that the client must send a large sum of money to release an even larger one. They would tell the Americans, or indeed Europeans, though not in so great a number, that they had won a million dollars on the lottery, but because they hadn’t filed a claim and had no doubt lost the ticket, they had to pay an upfront handling fee of $50,000 to release the prize. The odds of this working were shortened by the fact that the boys in the bar were not calling random numbers, but people from a list their bredren in Las Vegas had got hold of, of people who had proved to be bad gamblers, and likely to make poor decisions around money. Clever, you have to admit.
The scammers, and their many supporters, justified the activity on moral grounds, calling it reparation or back pay for slavery, and pointing out that if the white people were so stupid and greedy to send the money down, then they had to take some blame when they had it stolen. Which seems fair enough.
As the industry developed, so the scams became more sophisticated to stay ahead of the law and remain effective. I have a scammer friend whose genius I would love to acknowledge publicly but I will call him X, because I have some appointments in my diary later this month which I would hate to miss on account of being dead. Although a skinny little kid just out of school, X is an acknowledged titan in the trade.
X wears the industry uniform of tight, brightly coloured denims, an expensive T-shirt, a long-sleeved cashmere cardigan and headscarf knotted under the chin in the style of the British monarch. A strangely camp outfit, I always thought, in a homophobic country. I was told that it was descended from the original Nigerian scammer, who was gay and favoured urban chic. I am sure the lads would choke on their Hennessy if they knew their role model was homosexual. But it is one of the amusing things about Jamaica that the homophobes, of whom I am afraid there are many, are simply unable› to recognise a gay person, no matter how outrageously queer they appear. The headscarf and long sleeves are to ensure the skin whitening products all scammers use do not go to waste.
X prefers elderly clients, and I particularly remember him telling me about a lady called Dolly from Naples, Florida whom he successfully scammed. He told her in a Jamaican accent that he was working in a DHL post room and had noticed that when some customers accidentally overpaid, the excess sum was placed in an Escrow account which his friend Sandra in accounts could access, but to steal the money they had to have a bank account unconnected to either of them to send the cash to. Would Dolly be prepared to receive the money and pass half on, keeping the other half for herself? He was looking at the computer now, he said, and there was $18 million in the account. X then called the same number affecting not just an Alabaman accent but also a gender change and as Sandra told Dolly that she had worked for five years in DHL accounts and her friend Leroy was right about what he had told her. They just needed her permission and bank details to send the $18 million. While Dolly waited for the cash to turn up in her account, X called her again, this time as an executive from New York DHL head office in Newark, New York, informing her that he had noticed the illegal transfer and had put a stop to it. From the bar in my village, X spoke to Dolly in a Brooklyn drawl: ‘Lady — you are in a lot of trouble. I am calling the FBI and you could be looking at eight years for wire fraud…’ After listening to her protestations he said ‘OK. You seem like a nice lady. I may be able to help you out…’ X suggested they could continue with the scam and split the $18 million three ways. Then he introduced one last element: a bribe he had to give to his assistant at head office to turn a blind eye on the day they did the transfer. It was only $25,000, but they needed it in cash. And if Dolly didn’t come up with it, he still had the threat up his elegant sleeve that he would report her to the FBI.
I always said to X that if he could just get a job at Goldman Sachs he’d be a billionaire.
Naturally, it being Jamaica, new language has blossomed around scamming. X would arrive in the bar (the one where I am now drinking my fourth rum) and announce ‘Mi Bingo!’, bingo being the verb to receive the cash from a big deal. He would place a brick on the bar (that’s a wad of notes to you and me) and buy drinks for everyone. Hennessy is the scammers tipple of choice, not so much to drink as to pour in a circle around their car, light and throw hundred dollar bills into the ring of blue flame. In my hamlet, boys of 14 are pulling $50,000 out of the trade a month. They build their mums houses, they purchase their older siblings cars, pay for medical procedures and dispense largesse around the community. In one extraordinary case, a boy of 15 paid for street lights to be installed in his community to cut crime.
For the past five years, I, too, have quietly enjoyed the benefits of the industry: with all this money swilling around, there are lots of bars and parties and most people are in a good mood. I also enjoy better internet and mobile-phone coverage here than in Britain because the scammers are such important customers.
But lately I am seeing another side of the operation, particularly as younger and younger kids have mastered the art. The problem is that as a 14-year-old crime boss, once you have a PlayStation, a sound system and all the Burger Kings you can eat, there isn’t much else you need. Until, that is, men turned up and convinced these boys that any self-respecting teenage scammer needed a gun. And that was when the trouble started.
There is no arbitration process when the natural problems of their trade arise, like the splitting of profits when a team of scammers have worked on a client and landed a prize. So disputes that used to rumble on as grudges are now being settled with guns. Last week in Montego Bay a 15-year-old was caught in possession of an AK-47.
But that youth was not going to aim his assault rifle at you or me, unless we had crossed him in business. Thieving at gunpoint is not the scammers’ modus operandi. It’s beneath them. It’s like an inside trader trying to steal your watch. Scammers consider themselves white-collar criminals. They are masterminds, not hoodlums. In the past two years only one tourist has been killed in the whole of Jamaica, a Canadian. The last British tourist to be killed was a woman in downtown Kingston in 2001. The scammers would never intentionally harm a tourist, because they have no reason to. The money isn’t good enough for them to bother with that kind of nonsense.
Which is why if you do come to Jamaica on holiday, the person in most danger of being robbed by a yardie is the granny you leave behind at home to answer the phone.