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St. Clair Shores — A St. Clair Shores man was recently duped out of $1,000 through a scam in which a caller representing himself as a Macomb County sheriff’s deputy threatened to arrest him unless he paid fines for missing jury duty.

The intricate scheme involves the use of cloned phone numbers of the Sheriff’s Office, which made James Scarcelli believe he was in touch with bona fide law enforcement officers demanding cooperation to “clear up his record.”

Instead, Scarcelli later learned he had been victimized by a fraud that has been perpetrated repeatedly over the past decade.

“I consider myself pretty intelligent but was the perfect victim,” said Scarcelli, 55, a retired teacher from the Clintondale school district.

“I had received suspicious letters in the mail during the summer that I tossed out,” he explains. “I went out of the country for a few weeks and when I returned, received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a deputy notifying me there were warrants out for my arrest,

“I’m law-abiding and have never been in any trouble,” he said. “I have no experience with the judicial system. And I have respect for law enforcement. So when I’m told by someone, from a number that appears legitimate, that I need to cooperate, I’m going to do it.”

The caller told Scarcelli that with some effort, he could spare himself the time and embarrassment of being photographed and fingerprinted at the police station. He was warned “to not hang up and stay on the phone at all times” over a two-hour period.

During that time, he was instructed to go to an area service station, buy Green Dot cash cards totaling $1,000 and provide the numbers on the cards before finally visiting the Sheriff’s Office to clear his record.

“I walked in and was told it was all a scam and I should have known better,” said Scarcelli. “I was advised to file a report with my local police department.”

The source of the St. Clair Shores scam is still unknown. Investigations into cloned phone calls normally lead to “burner” phones, purchased for brief use and then discarded.

But the method parrots the one used in a scam three years ago that resulted in federal indictments against 75 Georgia prison inmates and correctional officers who victimized people across the nation by using contraband cell phones.

That conspiracy was largely committed inside Georgia state prisons and involved wire fraud, conspiring to commit money laundering and state corrections employees accepting bribes to smuggle phones to prisoners, who initiated the scam.

According to the federal probe, inmates allegedly used the contraband cell phones to search online for potential fraud victims' names, addresses and phone numbers. 

The inmates then called the targets, identifying themselves as police officers and warning the potential victims that arrest warrants had been issued against them for failing to appear for jury duty. The victims were given a choice: be arrested or pay fines to have the warrants dismissed.

To make the calls seem real, the inmates created fictitious voicemail greetings on their contraband phones, identifying themselves as members of law enforcement agencies.

For those victims who wanted to pay a fine, the inmates instructed them to purchase prepaid cash cards and provide the account number of the cash card or wire money directly into a prepaid debit card account held by the inmates. 

After getting cash card account numbers, the inmates called conspirators outside prison, who transferred money from the victims' cash cards to prepaid debit cards the conspirators had bought.   

Next, the conspirators visited ATM machines or stores, where they withdrew the money from the debit cards. Typically, they laundered the stolen funds by transferring them to newly bought cash cards, which they gave to the inmates. 

Metro Detroit law enforcement officials said police agencies don't call to seek payment of fines, and anyone receiving such a request by phone should ignore it and contact the local court or police department

“We don’t operate that way; no deputy ever receives cash or gift cards from a person attempting to clear up a warrant,” said Sgt. Renee Yax, a spokeswoman for the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office.

“These type of scams are always around,” she said. “Right now there is another one — much the same — involving arrest warrants and the caller giving the victim an opportunity to avoid arrest. Many of them target elderly victims but there are many variations on the same thing.

“We don’t do business that way,” she said. “The only way to resolve something involving the courts or our department is to show up in person and deal with clerks.”

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said there could be a situation where someone might be contacted about an outstanding warrant but they would be advised to turn themselves in and take care of the matter in the proper setting, not at a gas station buying a cash card.

“But the tip-off to a scam is when anybody starts telling you the matter is urgent and needs to be taken care of immediately and with payment of some sort to be verified over the phone,” Bouchard said. “Hang up and call your local police department and report it.”

Sgt. Sam Marzban of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office has investigated several such crimes over the past couple years, tracking victims and attempted fraud throughout southeast Michigan and as far away as Utah.

“These (scammers) target areas, work them for a brief period and then move on,” he said. “I’ve talked with police in other cities and states when I tracked phone numbers. The stories were all similar and this one (in St. Clair Shores) sounds just like them.

“One thing scammers do is their research,” he said. “They have names and know streets near courts and police departments. They will know how the courts work. The names of judges and names of workers. They also dig up police departments in the same jurisdiction and names of officers — sometimes from newspaper articles they find on the internet."

One constant, he said: “Courts don’t call up people who missed jury duty and threaten arrests.”

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

 

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