Law enforcement officials say that online scams in the twin-island Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis have been on the rise since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
But how the Royal St. Christopher and Nevis Police Force (RSCNPF)’track and document these criminal acts makes it hard to know the prevalence of the scams. Thus, the measuring of the crime data continues as an issue.
Over the last four years, the territory has seen sophisticated forms of online scams being reported to various law enforcement agencies, and it is proving to be a challenge for the agencies to curb the problem.
During his interview with the Caribbean Investigative Journalism Network (CIJN), Commissioner of Police, James Sutton concurred that there is a significant increase of online scams within the Federation despite warning that “If it is too good to be true, then it is.”
And though that warning is used to remind people about the various online scams of unsolicited social media messages and emails indicating that individuals are winners, there are still continuing victims.
The RSCNPF reports online scams as Larceny but it does not break out the numbers for online scams. Larceny, as reported by the Police Force, includes petty theft, embezzlement, issuance of bogus cheques, and online scams among others. Statistics obtained by CIJN showed that Larceny was the top category of crimes reported by the Police Force between 2020 and the second quarter of 2023.
Larceny by individual crimes, 350 cases were reported by the police for 2020, 448 in 2021, and 525 in 2022. But the statistics do not break out online scams.
Data from the first two quarters of this year show that there were 232 Larceny reports received by the police. Although online scams are not reported separately, law enforcement and financial officials said they have doubled down their effort to continue sensitizing the populace on the growing threat of online scammers, and the long-term cost it could have on them, financially, physically and mentally.
Scammers have been using phishing emails, relationship scams techniques, card hacks, direct social media contact and even business scams to catch unsuspecting persons in St. Kitts and Nevis.
Many of those interviewed by CIJN for this report confirmed that they would have, at some point in recent years, received some aspect of scam notices, whether through email or text.
The emails would state that they could either partner with, or are eligible for a large payout. In some cases, they are told that they won a lottery or large cash prizes and should send payment in order to clear the winnings and cover taxes before the transfer is made.
In many of those instances the scammers were traced to either Nigeria or Jamaica, with the latter being a hotspot in the Caribbean region – targeting American households.
That was the routine nature of online scams in the late 90s to early 2000s. However, the crime has evolved with technology. In St. Kitts and Nevis, while the scams have taken many forms, they gravitated to using the identities of a number of prominent government officials, including the Governor General and the Prime Minister.
Modern Scams and the Pandemic
Since 2020, online scams have been popping up on the radar of the Financial Services Regulatory Commission (FSRC), the Financial Intelligence Unit, and the White Colour Crimes Division of the Royal Saint Christopher and Nevis Police Force.
With the COVID pandemic throwing many into poverty and upending lives and livelihoods, law enforcement officials said they suspect they are under-reported.
“Coming out of the COVID we have seen a slight increase, but what we have been faced with is a lot of these incidents are not reported to law enforcement,” Commissioner Sutton added during his conversation with CIJN, skewing the data on the level of crime occurring in the territory.
Like many territories across the Caribbean region, St. Kitts and Nevis is highly tourism dependent, and the strict COVID mitigation measures had a devastating impact on the economy resulting in an increase in unemployment.
During the pandemic, and since, law enforcement agencies began receiving reports of fake whatsapp promotions, card hacks, Pyramid Schemes, unauthorised Forex Trading, false COVID-19 related investments, Work From Home Scams and relationship scams impacting people within the territory.
The scams prompted the President of the St. Kitts-Nevis Bankers Association to urge persons to be vigilant and to protect themselves from falling victims. Painting a true picture of the level of finances lost due to the online scams is difficult for law enforcement agencies, because many people either do not report them, or they are just seeking repayment from the offender.
Police said they could not estimate total amounts of money stolen under the financial schemes, but noted that in one business email compromise case US$400,000 was stolen and subsequently recovered.
Police Inspector Jerry Watt, Head of the White Colour Crimes Divisions, told CIJN that the police have received numerous complaints of those scams over the last five years, and the division getting many of them resolved with pending charges.
The Inspector could not divulge much at the time because many of the cases are still being investigated or before the courts. He however suggested that the phishing email scam continues to be among the top issues primarily affecting businesses. Over the last 12 months, there have been at least 5 instances reported directly to the police surrounding businesses being affected by compromised emails.
During investigations, it was found that an unsuspecting person within the organization clicked on the spam link that compromised the business account.
“We have seen instances where monies have been redirected by the payee to an individual who is not intended to receive the funds,” Watt said. He explained that based on their findings a business would have their email compromised and lose all access. The scammer would then send fake invoices and receive payment on behalf of that business.
The White Colour Crimes Division was successful in solving four of the five crimes with the other still being investigated. In its resolution of the matter police were able to return funds to the businesses after working with their overseas counterparts.
Because many of these scams are often not reported directly to the police they said they cannot completely track the problem. It is for that reason calls were made for organizations to step up their security measures to protect against those types of scams.
Whatsapps and Samsung, the New Normal
The sophisticated and methodical approaches by scammers see them appealing to the social fabric of the unsuspected individual. In 2021, the innovative Samsung Whatsapp scam made its way to St Kitts and Nevis, and it had people duped, according to Inspector Watt.
That scam focused on poverty reduction, the COVID pandemic, food or financial incentives provided by financial institutions. In most instances, the scammers focused their attention on poverty reduction and providing assistance in a time of need,
Individuals were told they were part of Samsung’s promotion, where their whatsapp numbers were randomly selected to win US$800,000 – that promotion was reportedly named ‘Samsung 2021 Online Grand Promotion’.
At that time, the scammer purported that winners would also take home a new vehicle and a Samsung Galaxy S21: “This is real and 100% legitimate this is fine done to eradicate poverty in St kitts and nevis by the United Nations un the Samsung company and the USA trust fund organization (the scammers wrote in their message).”
A second message read: “With the aim to help people who are affected by the COVID pandemic and lifted out from their various jobs so a system called the CTSS file programme generates random St kitts and nevis numbers.” Those messages appeared from 234-810-804-9966, 234-810-281-8725, 234-904-898-1499, and 234-909-678-4532. Strategically, the scammers never consistently use the same number, instead whatsapping the scammed individuals on different numbers, originating from the same area code.
As part of the scam, the fraudsters would request the unsuspected individual to fill out a form and then make a payment of US$259 (EC$700) for clearing the funds and have it delivered to the home address or the bank account (winner’s choice).
This particular scam made its rounds across the Caribbean, and in some instances prompted a response from several entities including the Police Forces in those jurisdictions. Despite the police force publicly warning of this, the messages continued with the latest being received in August. The scam showed up in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Bermuda among other territories.
The Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force in a media release reported that one Sarah Davis was “ a Samsung promo agent” using mobile number 880 1629-845652. The individual would target “Whatsapp users from Africa, America, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, Middle East, the Bahamas, New Zealand, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Haiti, Turks and Caicos”.
Inspector Watt confirmed that at least one person, he is aware of, who was defrauded under this programme. The Inspector was only made aware of the case by a counterpart overseas while investigating an entirely different incident.
In this case, it was revealed that the person was duped of nearly US$10,000 which was returned because the jurisdiction was classified as “cooperative”. In many instances, the monies are rerouted through locations that are “unfriendly” and “non-cooperative”.
Banks and Whatsapp Scams
Advancing the scams, perpetrators have targeted financial institutions within Basseterre.
Republic Bank Ltd was forced to warn its customers of a similar crime which was perpetrated using its logo. In that instance, the scammers upgraded their approach by sending a message to the victim with a link, if clicked they are redirected to a fake website where their banking information is then requested.
“These scammers are creating fictitious websites, deceiving customers and stealing their banking information. We would like to remind customers that the Bank and other reputable companies would never ask for sensitive and confidential information using this channel,” said Sherwin Forte, Manager Corporate Security said in a public notice following the discovery.
That was soon followed by CIBC First Caribbean St. Kitts issuing a similar warning about an online survey where the fraudsters were pretending to be staff members carrying out the information gathering session on its behalf for its St. Kitts branch.
“It has come to our attention that unauthorized individuals claiming to be employees of CIBC FirstCaribbean have been requesting valuable information, from our clients, through a survey. We wish to alert members of the public that this is an ongoing scam,” said the Bank’s Country Head (ag) in St. Kitts, Starlina Roserie.
These instances highlight a growing threat not only facing St. Kitts and Nevis but across the Caribbean region where the problem continues to be pervasive. CIBC has since updated its customers on a two-factor authentication initiative for them to protect their accounts and online banking information from scammers.
Credit and Debit Card Fraud and Hacks
In recent years, including this year, the issue of credit and debit card fraud has become a major problem for individuals and banks. In many instances, the scammers will gain access to the individual’s card and go on a shopping spree unknowing to the card holder.
This is explained to be a lucrative business for many as it is often not picked up because the amounts can range from US$1 to thousands of dollars. When the matter is reported to the financial institutions, the process can be very tedious to investigate, according to bank sources.
One bank source who has more than 14 years experience in the sector, explained that when these instances occur an investigation is launched by the financial institution. That can take two forms: one being localized and the other regional/international. If the card is deemed to be where an individual stole the money locally by obtaining the card or pin illegally, the police is then brought in and an investigation commences.
Inspector Watt confirmed that they are currently prosecuting cases of this nature and could not divulge details.
“We have a number of those cases being reported to us. It might simply be an individual living in a household and someone accessing their credit or debit card. This is an investigation, which refers to, where someone is committing a theft or larceny and we prosecute the matter if it is reported to us. My department would receive these matters seeing that the quantum in these cases might be to the threshold (US$25,000) that we might be involved in. We deal with the major matters at the White Colour crimes Unit.”
However, prosecution is often left up to the affected individual as confirmed by Commissioner Sutton, who noted that in too many instances the aggrieved party does not follow through because they prefer repayment.
Secondly, in international cases where the card has been compromised and funds stolen, the bank source explained that the financial institution will have the customer fill out a form and that information is then provided to the card brand, such as Visa or MasterCard.
Because of the levels of funds found to be taken from the individuals in a small territory like St. Kitts and Nevis, the brands, according to the Inspector, often have their insurance companies cover the cost because they are miniscule in comparison with larger markets.
Forex and Pyramid Scheme
These particular schemes were the most successful in building a base of clientele in St. Kitts and Nevis. Under Forex, persons are asked to invest varying amounts with a large return on their investment.
However, this scam does not have a base to support the heavy return promised for the investors.
In the case of the Pyramid Scheme, this started being seen in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago during the start of the pandemic and made its way across the region to St. Kitts and Nevis.
Under this scam, persons were paying a base fee to enter the scheme and then recruit team members. Once they achieve the minimum number of people (five) with the programme they were then promised to get their return on investment.
The issue with this was a promise of a large payout based on each member brought into the programme. The Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago explained that the marketing of this was done through social media and whatsapp.
In St. Kitts and Nevis, this caught the attention of the FSRC, FIU and the Police, as confirmed by the Inspector Watt.
Despite concerns being raised over the nature of the pyramid schemes, according to the Inspector, there is no law under which charges could be laid to those persons who were involved. He disclosed that a number of persons were taken into custody in connection with the scheme but were subsequently released.
Understanding the global nature of online scams and how lucrative it has become, is critical for law enforcement agencies around the world to clamp down on the growing problem. Many of these scams, as noted by Inspector Watt, prompt cross border collaboration by law enforcement agencies, including those in St.Kitts and Nevis.
It was through those collaborations that they were able to return large sums to businesses and individuals within St. Kitts and Nevis. Highlighting the need for this is the fact that the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that consumers in the North American nation last year alone lost at least US$10.3 Billion.
In its findings, the FBI on its website pointed to 14 popular scams of which Business Email Compromise, Business and Investment Fraud and Holiday Fraud were included.
Because of the nature of the reporting and the time constraints applied, this report warrants another investigation on this topic to determine how these scams have impacted individuals and their families, and why they prefer to just have the money returned rather than to include prosecution.
Meanwhile, Inspector Watt confirmed that they have put together recommendations for stiffer legislation to protect consumers from being fleeced by scammers, with penalties he hopes will act as a deterrent to these crimes.
The White Colour Crimes Investigator also provided recommendations for persons to protect themselves against falling victim to these and other onlines crimes, explaining that people must be vigilant when conducting business online.