I have made a career of being able to detect and remedy errors and defects, and even fraud and attempts to deceive in my career. I rather pride myself on my ability to sniff out the dark side of the web, and even see the scammer coming. When customers have been the victim of any such attack, I've often rallied to defend and protect them from future attempts.
Today however, the crooks nearly stumped the maestro. They had me at an advantage while driving in rush hour traffic with a phone call to my office line. EASICOMM has a Voice Over IP (VOIP) phone service so accepting office calls on mobile devices is a simple matter of a softphone app that makes and receives calls to and from our office line, while allowing our private cell numbers to remain private.
So today, while driving, a call came in from an unknown, but local Miami-Dade phone number (305) 686-2972. Many of our clients and prospects operate businesses in Miami so I rarely miss calls that could lead to opportunities. Many, in fact most, unknown calls we receive are some form of spam however I come from the age where telephone communications reign supreme so I still hold out hope for legitimate calls and answer each one with that spirit in mind.
Long ago, I learned the value of never saying "Hello" when answering the phone as the very word tends to activate robocalls and other forms of malarchy, so in true fashion I answered with "May I help you?"
Today's call did not disappoint, sort of. I answered with "May I help you?", followed by a live person calling me by my name, to which I was instantly disarmed with the possibility this could be a new potential client or other profitable opportunity. This call however was neither a client nor an opportunity, but an ensuing and clever scam.
What unfolded was truly disturbing, and for 20 excruciating minutes behind the wheel during a summertime downpour in South Florida rush traffic, I was held captive by someone who quite authentically impersonated a Broward County Sherriff's Deputy,
He identified himself as Officer David Jackson, badge number 9301, and stated he was calling from the BSO offices located at 7701 SW 71st Ave, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33068. He notified me that a federal warrant has been issued for my failure to appear for a Federal Jury summons delivered and signed by me on May 18th, and proceeded to give me options for surrender or post bond. In spite of my insistence that I never received notice, and had I received it, would have appeared as requested, he continued to press on.
As my alarm bells began ringing and the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up, I remained at a disadvantage to validate this caller as the rain began pummeling the car, with the wipers dragging across the windshield as if to test me with their annoying inability to do so quietly.
Traffic was extremely thick and I was unable to make any otherwise foolish attempt to google search and validate his address; a location that I discovered was merely a pinned location at the entrance to a local gas station, and nothing more. I was also unable to search his phone numbers, which later provided a satisfying, shady result for a "hot, green-eyed, strawberry-blonde Colombian escort." Try googling it yourself, no kidding.
Unable to use any of my learned investigatory defenses, or to even record the call, or take extemporaneous notes, I remained on the line victimized while managing to scribble a few key details on the back of a check stub at 65 mph on the Florida Turnpike!
Still uncertain of this caller's authenticity, I remained calm and respectful as I attempted to feign the resemblance of true concern, as the alleged Deputy proceeded to ask me to hold the current call and agree to accept another call from the non-emergency line at the Sheriff's office, for authentication purposes. This was an attempt to convince me the call was genuine. As more red flags appeared, I complied and to my surprise, was placed on hold and called again by another number from a Broward County area code showing "Broward County (954) 831-6565" on the caller ID.
As a Telecom pro for decades, I am all too aware that customizing one's caller ID is common practice (up to 15 characters). If you wanted your caller ID to appear as "Mickey Mouse", there's nothing stopping you, however, phone carriers should be held liable for allowing crooks to use governmental names for nefarious purposes like I experienced today.
This was clearly a sophisticated scam and for a brief moment, he knew had me in his crosshairs as he gloated about the authenticity of his call followed by him stating my complete home address to me. I foolishly confirmed it and immediately regretted it. That was the scammer's first victory at penetrating my defenses and it would be his last.
I then requested that they dispatch an officer to my home to discuss this in person, to which "Deputy Jackson" informed me that if he did so they would have no choice under the law than to arrest me on the spot. In spite of my years recognizing fraudulent attempts in the IT sector, and my instincts to the contrary, a small pit formed in my stomach as I began to imagine being handcuffed and locked up.
I knew I never signed for any notice of jury duty by courier, and in fact never have, because jury notices are never sent with delivery confirmation of any sort, and the courts realize the jury notification is largely based on the honor system. Also, having never been arrested, jailed, or otherwise spent any time in a law enforcement facility beyond renewing my auto tag or driver's license, I was confident that as a law-abiding citizen, I could readily negotiate any confusion and suggested that I would cancel my coming appointment and head straight to the address for the Sherriff's office he provided and handle this in person.
Coincidentally, I just appeared for jury duty in early May, only shortly before the alleged notice to appear he claims I signed for on May 18th. I, in fact, appeared for legitimate jury duty in early May, and after several rounds of selection was released by the judge with the assurance I had done my civic duty. As I write this, I'm just a little stunned at the amount of my personal information this charlatan had on me and was able to weaponize against me.
Now, remember - the Sherriff's office address he provided, as I later discovered, landed squarely in the landscaped space between a Mobil gas station and the Polish American Club, but at that moment I was not aware of that given all of the distractions at play, the least of which was driving in the rain, however, "Deputy Jackson" discouraged me and insisted that if I arrived in person at the Broward Sherriff's office, they would have no choice but to immediately arrest me for failure to appear for Federal Jury Duty.
So, now the caller thinks he has me cornered with the elaborate ruse that I will be arrested on the spot, no matter where I go, but of course - has an immediate solution.
He then proceeds to notify me that I can purchase an FTN Bond, or failure to notify Bond, or some other such nonsensical measure that implies that I never received notice to appear and that by buying this bond, I would get a "get-out-of-jail-free" card that would allow me to approach the authorities or the courts without risk of apprehension.
"Deputy Jackson" then asks me which route would I prefer to take, the criminal route by surrendering myself to BSO, or the civil route by purchasing the bond.
At this point, I was almost 15 minutes or more into the call. I was late for my appointment and all but convinced this was an elaborately executed, impressive scam. I stated that clearly, I would rather not be arrested, and asked how to obtain the clearly fake bond.
Here is where any remaining doubt was removed from my mind as the dear "Deputy Jackson" asks me where the nearest Walmart address is in relation to my location, and where I can pay for the bond by wire transfer. Game over. The moment you are asked to wire funds from Walmart, just hang up!
He proceeds to demand that I follow his wire instructions to the alleged office of the Broward Sherriff's, funds to which grant me a reprieve and bond to release me from arrest and court custody.
Then, he boldly and firmly warns me to remain on the phone. He stated, "Do not hang up, and stay on the phone and proceed to the nearest Walmart immediately." This is where any resemblance of polite discourse went right out the window. I hung up the call and rejected his immediate attempts to call back several times.
I then called the non-emergency line at the actual Broward County Sheriffs' office, and before I could even finish describing what I had just experienced, was told it was a known scam. Now, BSO seemed only slightly interested but was sympathetic and transferred me to the officer on duty who took my information including the phone numbers used by the criminal enterprise. She then informed me that the phone numbers are reportedly owned by an unknown LLC (likely operated by a "hot, green-eyed, strawberry blonde Colombian escort.").
No offense towards the fine ladies and gentlemen of the Broward Sherriff's office who commit to serve and protect. Somehow, the idea that they would have to waste such valuable resources on scum of the earth perpetrators like this is a sad reflection of the lack of moral fiber we face in modern society. Still, I'm thankful and appreciate all those who wear the uniform.
I was honestly a little shaken by this call, and frankly would have handled it differently had I been in the comfort of my office or home with the ease of access to tools to corroborate these claims, sans the distractions I was facing behind the wheel today.
The takeaway is to always question authenticity, never divulge private information unless you have directly dialed and properly verified your audience, and never wire funds to those posing as public officials, especially when instructed to do so at Walmart.
Craig Strang-Thompson is a US Navy Veteran and business owner/operator at EASICOMM, the communications experts. www.easicomm.com