|By Keri Blakinger - Houston Chronicle - 16-09-27
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When she got the call about her looming arrest, Emily Tonn was sitting at her Houston home relaxing, thinking nothing was wrong.
It was a Saturday in mid-August --and on the other end of the line was an officer, telling her about two warrants that could land her behind bars for missing jury duty. Except it wasn't really a cop, and there wasn't really a warrant -- it was one of the con artists who have been targeting Harris County residents with the latest iteration of a tried and true jury duty phone scam.
"This type of jury scam has existed since before I was in office, but it was never this sophisticated," said Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel, whose office oversees local jury duty.
Although similar grift hit the county two years ago, in the new version, scammers are demanding more money than before -- sometimes as much as $7,000.
"In the past, it was someone with a foreign accent telling you to send it to a P.O. box, using hard cash," Daniel said.
Now, the scam has evolved, and callers are sounding more official as they goad scared residents into forking over their hard-earned dollars.
In the current version of the racket -- which started popping up about five months ago -- a scammer calls, posing as a sheriff 's deputy or representative of Daniel's office. They'll spout dire warnings about an impending arrest that can be avoided only if the victim immediately buys a reloadable money card and reads off the number to file with the supposed case.
"To appear legit, they'll have you mail the card as proof of payment," he said. Typically they'll use a downtown address that sounds like it could be the clerk's office -- but it isn't.
In some cases, they'll instruct victims to put BLOODMON33Y on the envelope as a bizarre fake confirmation code. In others, they'll brazenly impersonate actual Harris County deputies on the phone.
"I got a call from someone saying he was Sgt. Pugh, saying I had two warrants out for my arrest for failing to appear for a June 20 jury duty and that I had to go purchase these cards in order not to be arrested and that he was going to set a court date so I could go dispute this," Tonn said.
The fake deputy -- who bears the same last name as real sheriff's office employees -- ordered her to stay on the phone while she drove to the store to get a REloadit card.
"He said I had to give him the numbers on the back of the cards so he could attach them to the citation number," she said.
So Tonn followed the man's instructions and ended up forking over more than $1,000. She didn't realize she'd been scammed until two days later.
"That Monday morning I was talking to a coworker and pieces started adding up, and I started to question myself," she said.
She was right to wonder -- because that's not really what happens if you miss jury duty.
"You will receive a failure to appear notice in the mail from us," Daniel said. "We never, ever, ever, ever make a phone call. Period."
Even so, at least seven recent victims have paid somewhere between $2,000 and $7,000 to sophisticated scammers.
Lawyer: 'I felt foolish'
Keith Woods, a Houston civil attorney, realized something was amiss after he talked to a colleague about a fishy call he'd gotten in early August from the same fake deputy who contacted Tonn.
Woods wasn't home when the scammer rang, but the man left a message and Woods diligently returned the call.
"The first time I called back, the message I got was that I'd reached the Harris County Sheriff 's Office," he said.
"Now I know that was just a burner phone."
Woods paid $1,000, and the thief doled out a fake court date and told him to appear at 1001 Preston, Suite 100 -- the home of the Harris County Tax Office.
"I felt foolish," he said.
Earlier this year, a massive ring of guards and inmates at a Georgia prison was charged with running a jury duty phone scam that targeted some victims in Harris County. And according to Harris County Sheriff 's Office investigator Joshua Nowitz, Georgia prisoners may be behind the current scam.
"After we did the federal indictments in Georgia, the FBI pulled out, but the scam is still continuing, and it's being operated by the same groups of people in the same prisons," Nowitz said.
When new inmates from other cities get booked in, scammers will team up with them to identify wealthy ZIP codes to hit in their area, but it's unclear exactly what database or information source scammers are using to identify their marks.
After a few weeks or months focused on one spot, they'll shift focus and target another city.
Since not everyone reports it -- or even realizes they've been hit -- it's not clear how many people have fallen victim.
'Not unique to Houston'
Usually these criminals target the elderly, but Nowitz said younger people have been in the crosshairs of the jury duty scheme.
"It makes me angry that we can't stop it," he said.
The jury duty scam is one version of previous scams. In some schemes, it's the IRS calling, and in others it's the county clerk.
"There's been variations over the years -- this scam is certainly not unique to Houston," said FBI Special Agent Shauna Dunlap.
One version that is popping up elsewhere but hasn't yet hit Harris County is an almost identical federal jury duty scam. That con surfaced in Tennessee, Alabama and Colorado, but wherever it is, it's utterly fake.
"Whether they're saying you missed your local jury duty or federal jury service, each and every case is a fraud designed to trick you out of your hard-earned money," Dunlap said. "We can't stress this enough, but no law enforcement official will ever call you by phone and demand money. Don't ever provide payment or personal info over the phone to an unsolicited caller. When in doubt, check it out."
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