Jury duty scam hits Alameda County
on September 5, 2014
The phone rings, you pick it up, and the caller identifies himself as a lieutenant or sergeant with the local county sheriff’s office. He says you failed to report for jury duty and that a warrant is out for your arrest. You say you never received a notice. The caller tells you a simple payment over the phone will take care of the problem. In three easy steps, you’ve just fallen victim to the latest jury duty scam claiming victims nationwide.
Jury duty scams have been around for decades, but this particular scam resurfaced in California in March. Adam Buyer, a public information administrator with the Alameda Superior Court, said that over the last three months the court has been receiving one or two complaints each week from people who have been contacted by the scammer. These numbers, Buyer pointed out, do not account for complaints that may have been filed with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office or the Oakland Police Department.
The proliferation of this scheme has gathered enough national attention to involve the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). This July the FBI released an alert in Hawaii, warning residents of the resurfacing jury duty scam, and now some county court systems are releasing their own warnings to residents. San Mateo, Marin and San Rafael are some of the neighboring counties where scammers have contacted residents, according to the alerts issued by these counties. Other states including Nevada, Arizona and Michigan are also issuing warnings. The payment scammers ask for has varied among states and counties, running from $700 to $4,000.
The fake sergeant called Lizanne Blair, a Marin county resident, on her landline in April asking for a payment of $750. Blair narrowly escaped becoming a victim of the scam. “I consider myself a pretty smart person, yet it was pretty convincing because he had answers to most of my questions,” said Blair of the mystery caller.
Blair said she asked the man why she should have to pay a fine for something she didn’t do, to which, she said, he replied she could submit a claim and that her money would be returned if it were a mistake. The tip-off for her was when she was asked to pay before submitting her claim with a pre-paid debit card. “It didn’t make sense to me to pay the fine before filing a claim or that I had to use a cash card,” said Blair.
Although Blair wasn’t duped, she contacted her local news outlet, The Marin Independent Journal, in hopes of alerting other people who may be in more vulnerable positions. “I just think for someone who hasn’t lived in this country for very long, or in several other situations, you can be taken off guard,” said Blair.
Jury duty scams have been around since landlines were the only phones people owned, and continue to resurface, possibly due to what investigators call the “portability” of the scam, meaning the scammers can pick up and go to the next state, leaving no trace of their location. The FBI website notes scammers have moved around from state to state with this same jury duty scheme, or a variation in which someone claims to be from a government agency like the IRS, or the private utilities company Pacific Gas and Electric, and demands payment for an imaginary infraction.
None of the scammers involved in the current California wave of the jury scam have been caught so far.
Special Agent Greg Wuehrich with the FBI’s San Francisco office, who has been following nationwide scams like this one, said tracking these scammers down is problematic, since there are so many ways they can disguise their true phone numbers. “Using disposable cell phones and pre-paid reloadable debit cards to receive payments is only one way scammers can move from state to state without a trace,” Wuehrich said.
Aside from the monetary loss victims face, there can also be psychological effects, he said. “For a lot of older victims who may not realize it’s a scam, it can cause them to become depressed,” Wuehrich said.
So how can you avoid being the next victim? If you receive this kind of phone call, the warning notice available through your local superior court website instructs you to do the following: Do not give the caller any personal information about yourself. Write down the phone number the person is calling you from and contact your local police department and/or your local FBI office to file a complaint.
And most of all, Buyer said, remember that real court systems won’t demand you pay a fine by phone. “The only way we would contact someone for failing to appear for jury service is via a court-order delivered certified mail,” said Buyer.
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