Politics as Usual

My life in crime

How not to react to a scam

A friend recently stated that she doesn’t leave her home in anything but running shoes, so she can get away in case anyone attempts to attack her. She’s not necessarily paranoid; she was the victim of a cell phone theft while she rode the bus a while ago. But, as I discovered recently, sometimes it’s brains not boots that’ll save you.

Let me just stipulate something right at the outset: This tale does not make me look smart. If anything, you might read this thinking, “Who the heck would fall for that?” Well, I did, and here’s what happened.


I received a call one afternoon from someone claiming to be with the sheriff’s department. The man said there was a warrant out for me because I’d missed jury duty. I asked when the jury duty notice had gone out, he told me it was about a month ago, and my mind flipped. I had been staying at a friend’s house while work was done on my place, and the Postal Service had (on its own) decided to return all of my incoming mail to the senders, something I didn’t discover until quite late. I clumsily explained that to the “sheriff’s deputy” on the phone, and he said he could help clear it all up, but I’d need to post a bond.

Now, how can you post a bond? Never having been to jail, I didn’t know. My life of crime heretofore has been restricted to jaywalking (something that AB 2147 recently recategorized as not a crime). I would have thought one would pay a bond with a credit card, a check, a big jar of quarters — whatever it took to get money from your wallet to the court’s. Or the police. Honest to God, I don’t even know who gets the money.

Nonetheless, I didn’t know if it was real or not when my helpful “sheriff’s deputy” pal said I’d need to deposit $1,500 in a kiosk, which would then be recorded. (Again, by whom? The court? Police? Jesus? Details were not my strong suit while I was reacting in panic, worried that my trip the next day could be delayed.) Maybe it would be good if my main source of knowledge about America’s legal system weren’t L.A. Law and The Good Wife.

I withdrew the cash from my bank. All the while, the scammer was on my cell phone, saying it was necessary to keep a live connection to me or else I might be arrested by the next officer I encountered. What keeping me on my cell phone did, of course, was prevent me from seeing the warning messages sent by coworkers to whom I’d hurriedly explained my predicament before I left the office. It also stopped me from calling the sheriff’s department myself and discovering this was all a hoax.

To make a long story short, I then hopped into a cab, followed directions to a corner store in the Mission where there was a machine that converted my hard-earned cash into Bitcoin, which the scammers then got via a QR code they texted me, which gave them access to the money.

Shortly thereafter, the fog of panic began to subside, especially after the scammers — likely laughing their heads off over having found such an easy mark — said they saw the money in the bond account, but it was flagged. Oh, and I couldn’t just go down to the sheriff’s office, because there was “something going on in the lobby” so it was locked down. He then tried to direct me to some other payment method, and it all unraveled in my rapidly defogging mind. 

When I finally asked for his name so I could call the sheriff’s department myself and ask to speak to him, he began talking fast about how he was only trying to help me get this taken care of, etc. Oh, there was lots of etc. But any real police or sheriff’s officer is going to have no trouble with you verifying who they are. I hung up. Fifteen hundred dollars poorer, feeling a whole lot stupider, and then quickly changing passwords and factory resetting my phone, just in case.


To make my victimization even stupider and harder to explain, I actually had missed reporting for jury duty a few years ago. Though I normally hold onto the jury mailer and check it every day, it somehow missed my attention and I didn’t realize it until after the specified week had passed. I immediately called the court and was not greeted with threats of arrest and a demand for money; they were very friendly, accepted my apology, and actually thanked me for calling. You’d think I would have remembered that earlier during my recent shakedown, but then that’s what stress, a kernel of possibility about the truth of the claim, and a built-in trust of authority does for one. Well, did for me.

The type of scam that capitalizes on people at times of stress, getting them to do something before they engage their normal brain power, isn’t confined to the jury duty scam. I spoke with one man recently who talked about falling for a scam from someone claiming to be with PG&E, threatening to shut off power to his business if an overdue bill wasn’t paid. He and his staff went through all kinds of hoops to immediately pay the bill. And yes, that involved going through some convoluted nontraditional payment method at a third-party location. Hundreds of dollars were paid to the scammers. In telling the story, my friend said he was acting out of fear of losing power right before a big event to be held at his company, and if he’d stopped to think more clearly, he would have just called PG&E directly and asked them to hold off another day (and would of course have learned that it wasn’t a real threat).

Or there’s my late mother. About 10 years ago she fell for the phone scam in which someone was able to take over her computer while pretending to help her fix some problem. Mom was pretty good at avoiding scams, but once again she had been on deadline to complete a newsletter and her mind’s goal became meeting the deadline above all else — including stopping and calling any of her kids to ask them if this smelled fishy.

So, a word to the wise from the temporarily not-so-wise.

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