Phishing season

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About 15 years ago, a man who identified himself as an LAPD officer called me. My surname, he said, was the same as someone whose boat was found at the bottom of Marina del Rey, but whose whereabouts were unknown. Was I related to the owner, he wanted to know, and did I know how to contact him?

It seemed hinky -- was the boat involved in some kind of fraud? Was the caller really a cop? In fact, the cop was legit, and the guy turned out to be a distant relative. I still don't know him, nor where he is.

Like a lot of people these days, I don't answer the phone if I don't recognize the number. Yesterday it rang, and caller ID gave a Denver area code. I'm from Denver, where I have relatives and friends, some of them elderly. I answered. A polite, businesslike man identified himself as "Lt. James Jones of the Denver County Sheriff's Department," asked if I was Ellen Alperstein, and did I reside at a Denver address he cited.

I told him that the address once was my mother's, and that she died several years ago. He told me I had failed to appear for a grand jury summons sent to that address, and that two citations had been issued for me. I told him I hadn't lived in Denver for decades.

Apparently, I'm the last person in America to have heard of the jury duty phishing fraud.

A few years ago, a guy in Washington state was scammed out of 10 grand. An Arizona woman was ripped off for $6,500. Other people, according to a report by Stateline, have been cheated out of hundreds of dollars by callers representing themselves as officers of the court who contacted them because they failed to appear after receiving a jury summons. The "officers" calmly, politely, bureaucratically invoke enough of your personal information to be sufficiently persuasive for some people to offer more. You are in contempt of court, they explain, and must pay a fine immediately, or a bench warrant will be issued for your arrest.

Yesterday, something was rotten in the state of Colorado.

"Lt. Jones" said he was in the process of calling 23 people (coincidentally, the number of people who serve on grand juries in Denver) who similarly had failed to appear for grand jury service. Maybe, he said, something was wrong with their "system."

I was suspicious, but my curiosity was piqued, and he had yet to ask for personal information with which he could steal my ID. Because my name had been on the deed of my mother's condo, maybe someone had screwed up some paperwork. I asked how he got my name, and he said I was the "contact" at that address. I asked if anyone else was associated with the address, and he named my brother, whose name was also on the deed. We sold that property years ago.

I told "Lt. Jones" that I would inform my brother, an attorney in Denver, about the situation, and asked for his direct line in case we could provide useful information. He gave me a number with a Denver area code, but different from the one on caller ID. Then he said his computer had gone down, and he would have to ask his captain how to proceed. If I didn't hear from him by 4 p.m., he said, I could assume the problem was resolved in my favor. Then he hung up.

I called the number on caller ID and got the voice mail of "Lt. James Jones." The Denver Sheriff's website listed several numbers, none of them related to jury service. There were several exchanges for different departments, none of them the same as either of the two my scammer provided me.

Workers for the city and county of Denver told me that neither of those numbers was affiliated with the sheriff, and that there was no James Jones employed in that department. A person at the Denver D.A.'s fraud line had heard it all before. Sometimes, she said, victims are told to buy an iTunes gift card and provide the number and PIN to the caller. And they do it.

According to an alert on the FCC website, sometimes scammers tell their marks to go to a nearby Safeway or CVS to wire the money to a county courthouse account, where the person can go later to have the fine refunded. And they do it.

The job of law enforcement officers is to serve as well as protect, so of course the fake authorities are armed with suggestions of how to dispatch your fake jury-duty debt immediately in order to avoid arrest. You can pay by credit card. Your bank can transfer money from your account to the county's account.

It's difficult to quantify the jury-duty scam in L.A. The county agencies don't track these calls, and a couple of police departments, who are most likely to take such reports, did not respond to my inquiries.

Jury-duty-fraud.jpgMary Hearn has worked for the L.A. County Superior Court for 12 years. She's fielded jury duty phisher complaints for at least half that time. Ricardo Santiago of the D.A.'s office noted that three years ago, the county posted a fraud alert detailing the jury duty scam. He'd like everyone to know that jurors are never telephoned for failure to appear for service. They're never asked to pay a fine over the phone. Such penalties would be imposed only at an appearance before a judge. So if you paid your fake fine, you're not a scofflaw, you're a victim. Some people would call you a patsy, but I came too close to go there.

According to an article by Greg Hurley, an analyst with the National Center for State Courts, fraud alerts have been issued by law enforcement and court-affiliated agencies all over the U.S. Phishermen use burner phones with spoofed numbers to hide their IDs and locations.

"[A]lthough it is possible that there have been prosecutions of fraudsters involved in this scam," Hurley wrote, "Internet searches have not revealed any such prosecutions, and they are certainly uncommon if any do exist."

"It's difficult to catch perpetrators," Santiago confirmed, "... so the best course is prevention."

That's true whether you live in Downey or Denver or Dubuque. If you truly do fail to respond to a jury duty summons, or fail to appear, you might have to pay a fine. But at least make sure your money goes to the county, and not to "Lt. Jones."

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