“We have a warrant for your arrest.  You did not show up for jury duty, and the judge is upset.  You can turn yourself in, and your cash bond is $3,000.”

This was the phone call yesterday – with a real person on the other end identifying himself as a deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Civil Process Division in Orlando.  The recipient was my daughter-in-law, Amy.  She was terrified.

Amy and her family lived in Orange County for a couple of years, but moved into their new house in Volusia County at the end of last year.  She properly changed her address on her driver’s license and voter registration.   Through a series of conversations with this caller, she determined that a notice was properly delivered to her old address in Orlando on May 30, someone signed for it, and she was due to show up in court that Monday, July 2.

She was going to jail unless she could come up with $3,000 cash.

It was all a scam, but quite a good one.

Obviously, Amy was quite upset – she bought into this scenario and was sure that she would be arrested any minute, taken to jail, and separated from her children.  Since she now lives in Volusia County, the “deputy” conferenced in Captain Douglas from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office (VCSO) who then told her that she needed to bring the bail money to the VCSO office in DeLand to avoid arrest.  Captain Douglas also told her that since she is a caregiver of children, the bail could be reduced to $1,485.  How nice.

With all this going on, Amy decided to get some help from me, her father-in-law.  As a lifelong police officer and public safety trainer, maybe I could help.  I drove over to her house to get some better information, but not before calling the number provided by the scammer.  The first call yielded nothing but voice mail from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Civil Process Division, as did the second.  On the third call, someone picked up.  As I asked for information on the case against Amy, he hung up.

In law enforcement, we call this “a clue.”

Arriving at Amy’s house, she met me in the driveway and got in the car, ready to go to the VCSO to turn herself in.  However, we never left the driveway – I needed to make a few calls and figure out was was going on…something didn’t feel right.  I worked for VCSO and have trained most of the senior staff at one time or another, and I did not know anyone named “Captain Douglas.”

I called the Sheriff – Mike Chitwood – directly.  (I worked for him when he was the police chief at Daytona Beach Police Department.)  Mike wasn’t in the office, but his assistant transferred me to the head of Court Security, Captain Eric Dietrich, another friend and former student.  As I related the story to Eric, he assured us both that this was an attempt at a scam for money and that his agency was not going to arrest Amy.  He also called Orange County Sheriff’s Office to verify these issues.

In all it took an hour or so, but by 4:00, the crisis was over.

There are lessons to be learned here.

  • While judges on TV may order deputies to go and find jurors and witnesses who don’t show up and drag them to court, it does not happen in real life.  Those who don’t show up may get a summons to appear before the judge, but that court appearance would take place weeks or even months down the road.  No arrest.
  • When bail money is collected upon arrest, it is collected at the jail in the form of cash or a bail bondsman’s paperwork.  In this case, the scammers insisted that the bail money – $1,485 – be provided in the form of a Safe Money Pack, basically a prepaid debit card system.  They even provided details on how to get the money, including the fact that they wanted the cards in $200 increments.  Again, this is not how the system works.
  • When VCSO “Captain Douglas” was conferenced in, Amy was given an address in DeLand to bring the money.  While the address was a VCSO facility, it was the “Special Services Division” at the DeLand airport where the Air Unit, Motorcycle Unit, Ranch and Range Unit and the Marine Unit are housed.  They have nothing to do with bail or warrants.  We can only assume that the scammers were going to meet her in the parking lot and take care of it on the trunk of a car without going inside.
  • The scammers said that if she paid with these Safe Money Packs, she would sign some paperwork and that would take care of the situation.  However, if she was to get a bail bondsman, she would be booked into the County Jail, fingerprinted, photographed, etc., and spend significant time in a jail cell waiting to be released on bail.  Again, this is not how it happens.
  • When the phone number used to call Amy came up on her phone, it said that the call was from Oviedo, Florida.  Calling that number back, the voice mail intro said that it was the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.  One problem – Oviedo is a bedroom community in Seminole County, which is between Orange and Volusia.  The Orange County Sheriff’s Office would not have a facility in a different county.
  • The scammer said that the notice for jury duty was delivered to her house in Orlando and that someone signed for it there.  The house, which belongs to a friend, has been vacant since they moved out.  Amy surmised, however, that maybe it was delivered to a neighbor.  Again, not how it works, and another clue that something was rotten.
  • Finally, the thought of a law-abiding mother of three would be arrested and jailed when she did nothing wrong turned the whole situation into an emotional roller coaster, which is exactly what the scammers wanted.  When you are upset, your thoughts turn to things like sitters for the kids, shattered plans, the fear of jail, and a thousand other things – instead of looking at the situation objectively and possibly poking holes in it.  That is where father-in-law comes in.

This situation was troubling at the least and scary at its worse.  Not everyone has someone who has the background and contacts who can help unwind a legal situation like this.  As a public safety professional, I have to admit that these guys had a good plan, and that there are probably others who give in and pay the money to stay out of jail.

Spread this word, especially if you are in Central Florida where this occurred.  If you get the call, contact your local law enforcement agency to verify that the information that you are getting is real.

And remember that if you get a jury summons, you should really show up and do your civic duty.

Special thanks and accolades to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, especially Sheriff Mike Chitwood and his staff.  Special thanks to Captain Eric Dietrich for his assistance in not only figuring this out, but also his calming demeanor to help Amy “off the ledge.”  His kind, reassuring words helped immensely.

There are numerous stories online that detail this kind of scam which has been around for years.  Google knows where they are!