The fear factor is an effective fraud technique used to panic citizens who have never broken a law in their life.
An official looking letter or email arrives with your name and address clearly spelled out. It claims to come from some official-sounding body—Bailiff of the State Court, Jury Summons Office, Jury Administrative Office, Clerk of the Court, Judicial District Jury Office, Office of Jury Commissioner, whatever. Next to your name and address, there is a case number and near that, a return address, which is often a post office box. There is also a phone number which, when you ring it, turns out to be an answering machine.
The message explains how sometime ago—usually 90 to 120 days—a notice was sent to you requiring your presence on a jury. In every state of the Union, when you’re notified to serve on a jury, you are legally obliged to respond. This notice says that when you failed to respond, a second notice was issued. When you failed to respond to that, a third notice was sent, allowing you a fixed amount of time—say 14 days—to explain to the court why you disregarded those previous notices. Furthermore, the third notice clearly spelled out that should you fail to respond this time, an arrest warrant would be issued.
Now, the message says that having failed to provide a suitable explanation for your absence, a warrant has indeed been issued for your arrest. The charge is noted as either contempt of court or failure to appear. In either case, you are informed, you are subject to immediate arrest, and a guilty verdict at trial can carry with it jail time.
You cry, “But I’m innocent.”
Which is precisely what the fraudster is counting on.
Faced with something as sudden and dramatic as the possibility of going to jail, very few people have the presence of mind to think this through: I was not previously summoned for jury duty, because if I had been, I would have received the official notice by mail. After all, they knew how to reach me with this. How come they didn’t find me with the previous three notices? And, do the courts really operate this way?
Instead, all you can think of is, I’m a fugitive.
Given this predictable result, the fraudster has provided you with a convenient solution. The notice says, if the warrant has been issued in error—you think, damn right it has—you should go to our website, or phone our special jury hotline number, and provide sufficient proof of your innocence.
So you make a beeline for the escape hatch. To prove that you’re you and not the person named on the arrest warrant, the website or the hotline requires personal information: name, address, phone, birth date, mother’s maiden name, Social Security number, banking and credit card details, etc. And in your panic, you hand the con man exactly what he needs.
While letters and email are what’s commonly used in this scam, some fraudsters have taken to the phone to inform potential victims of the arrest warrant. They identify themselves as officers of the court, sometimes even using the real name of a person working in a real court office. They admonish you for missing jury duty—or, in one variation, they announce that they are giving you yet another chance, but need to prescreen prospective jurors—and go through the same scenario as the website and hotline, demanding personal information. Should you balk at giving them that information, they threaten not just arrest but also the possibility of steep fines.
In one simple variation, you can be excused from having missed jury duty and the arrest warrant will be dropped, if you agree to pay a fine using your credit card. But it has to be right now. Any delay will put you in further jeopardy.
Of course, if you take the time to look closely, you should see through this. Names and addresses of prospective jurors usually come from voter registration lists, so jury offices already have your name and address. And that’s all they need. Contact between the courts and prospective jurors comes through the mail. No one is summoned for jury duty by email. Nor do court officials phone people who have missed jury duty. Only con men do that.
There is nothing about jury duty that requires you to divulge your mother’s maiden name, your bank account number or your credit card information. Nothing whatsoever! And in some rare instance when phone contact with a genuine court official is necessary, you will never be asked for personal or sensitive information.
But fear is extremely effective. It’s a rare person who, when faced with this, is cool and collected enough to do the easiest, simplest and most obvious thing: Go to a phone book or ask information for the number of the real clerk of the real court—never ring a phone number provided in an unsolicited email, letter, or phone call—and ask him, what’s this all about?
Fear is the motivation behind such frauds as:
*** Text messages from your bank announcing that your account has been closed due to suspicious activities. You are instructed to dial an 800 number, after which you’re asked to verify your account number and password, obviously so that the scammers can clean it out.
*** Email from a company that intends to foreclose on your home and then demands a fee to stop it.
*** Someone pretending to be your credit card company saying there’s been a serious breach and you will need to reactivate your card by telling them your card number and new password.
(c) Jeffrey Robinson 2010, 2012
Jeffrey Robinson’s There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute: A Revelation of Audacious Frauds, Scams, and Cons — How to Spot Them, How to Stop Them