By Maggie Seybold
When Capt. Tony McFaddin of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s office heard about the latest phone scam circulating in the area, he decided to check it out for himself. He dialed the phone number associated with the scam, and a man answered: “Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Walker, citations division.”
McFaddin smiled as he recalled what he said to the man. “I introduced myself as Captain McFaddin with the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s office.”
“Deputy Walker” responded, “Hi, how are you?”
“I think you and I have a problem,” McFaddin recalled saying.
“Deputy Walker” hung up.
McFaddin says “Deputy Walker” was part of a scam that places calls to its intended victims to say they missed jury duty. “Deputy Walker” threatens to arrest the calls’ recipients if they don’t immediately pay a fine over the phone, using a prepaid Visa card.
“We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it in different areas, but we haven’t had it here for a while,” he said.
He said this scam was unusual because it had been using the same number for several days, a number with the local 540 area code.
Scams like these are a persistent national problem: a Truecaller survey conducted by the Harris Poll showed that 11 percent of adult Americans lost money in phone scams in 2015, compared with about 6 percent in 2014. Despite the growing prevalence of caller ID, twice as many Americans lost money in phone scams. The survey estimated that average loss is about $270 per victim.
McFaddin wasn’t the only one who got an introduction to “Deputy Walker.” Don Ellis, a Lexington resident, got a call last Thursday.
“I got a call at home, and a very stern man announced that he had a warrant for my arrest for missing jury duty,” Ellis said. “He said a subpoena was served on me… and delivered to me at 14 East Nelson Street.”
Ellis, a lawyer, closed his office when he retired in August; the office was located at 14 E. Nelson St.
“I told him that I certainly would have gone had I seen the notice, and he blamed it on a clerical error,” Ellis said. “I said, ‘You can talk to the clerk and the judge, I’ll show up in court and explain what happened.’”
Ellis said that he didn’t realize he was being scammed. After “Deputy Walker” hung up, Ellis called the courthouse and found out that he had never missed jury duty and there wasn’t a warrant for his arrest. The clerk said the scam had been circulating throughout Virginia.
“With all scams, we’ll see them multiple times until it’s exhausted,” McFaddin said. “Until they move on to a different area or change their number.”
There were reports of the scam in Alleghany County before it reached the local area. McFaddin said he knew it was only a matter of time until it started claiming victims around Rockbridge County.
When called, the number went straight to this voicemail:
“You’ve reached the county sheriff’s department. All of our deputies are busy assisting other callers at this time, but if you leave your name, your number and a brief message stating the purpose of your call, one of our deputies will be back in touch with you briefly.”
One Rockbridge County area resident lost $2,000 as a result of this phone scam, according to McFaddin. And this isn’t the only scam moving through the area. Bonny Reynolds, a Glasgow resident, called the sheriff’s office to report another scheme.
“I picked up, and someone said, ‘Hello, this is Josh from customer service, can you hear me now?’ ”
Reynolds had just bought a new washing machine, and was expecting a call from a customer service representative.
“I knew it wasn’t them because if I had actually missed their call, they would have left a voicemail,” Reynolds said. “I’m really getting sick of this. We’ve been getting a lot of these calls. A lot of my friends have been getting them too.”
The “can you hear me now” scam, according to the sheriff’s office, aims to record the victim saying “yes.” The scammers will call back later, claiming that the victim had agreed to pay for something like a telephone bill or a fine. They will then play back the recording, and threaten the call recipient with legal action if he or she doesn’t comply.
The scammers collect personal information and target specific victims. For example, “Deputy Walker” had information about Ellis’ former business address, and “Josh” knew Reynolds was expecting a call from customer service.
In order to combat phone scams, the Federal Trade Commission suggests signing up for the National Do Not Call Registry. If people still get calls from unrecognizable numbers, it is probably a scam ignoring the “do-not-call” law, according to the FTC.