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Public warned of jury duty call scam (Harris County, TX)

U.S. Marshals say fraudsters seek money by impersonating officials

By Gabrielle Banks - Houston Chronicle - 16-12-20
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Tonya Granger, a Houston addiction counselor, came downtown Thursday to turn herself in to U.S. Marshals for failing to report for federal jury duty.

A marshal identifying himself by name and badge number had phoned several times about the neglected jury summons he said had been sent to what she explained was her previous address. Granger, 50, had served on a state jury before and knew there were consequences for skipping jury duty. So she complied with his "apologetically" delivered instructions and bought two payment cards for $990, money that would otherwise have covered her mortgage payment.

But now the would-be lawman with a cowboy twang was asking for an additional $990, and she did not have it.

She kept him on the line as she walked through the federal building on Rusk Street expecting deputies would slap on handcuffs and send her to jail for six months. Instead, when she handed over her phone to a real U.S. Marshal so the two men could discuss the situation, the caller disconnected.

It turned out Granger had not missed jury duty and was not in any trouble with the law. Instead, she and several others in the Houston area had fallen victim last week to an uptick of jury duty scammers. These sorts of fraudulent calls are not new, but a spate of them have descended on Houston lately, including a series of callers telling victims they must pay a related fine or go to jail for skipping out on Harris County jury duty. The FBI is investigating several of these claims.

Gary Blankinship, the U.S. marshal in Houston, invited Granger to share her experience Monday at a news conference to illustrate how sophisticated and official-sounding some of these callers are and to encourage the public not to send them funds or share personal information.

"No law enforcement official will ever call you on the phone and demand money," Blankinship said. "Let your friends and neighbors know about this scam, especially senior citizens, as they're often targeted by these scams."

He said in this recent fraud scheme, callers mentioned his own name in connection with their threats and they also named a real federal judge's name, and a deputy director at the Marshals Office. The scammers refered victims to the real U.S. Marshal's website and used high-tech electronic equipment that can "spoof " a victim's caller ID so it indicates the call is actually from the Marshals Office. When victims called the return number the scammers provided, the voice-mail mimicked the message at the real Marshal's Office with the exact same automatic prompts.

Other phone schemes involve telling victims they owe money to the IRS or other agencies and threatening them with arrest, he said. One scam resulted in dozens of arrests in a call center scam based in India that allegedly netted $300 million from victims.

"Each and every case -- it's a fraud designed to trick you out of your hard earned cash," the Blankinship said.

Officials asked that anyone who paid money to a suspected jury duty scam-mer report it at www.ic3.gov and file a police report with a local law enforcement agency or the FBI. Individuals who receive the call but have not lost money may register the incident at the website only.

Tags: Jury duty,scam, payment card, jail,U.S. Marshals

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