Federal Court Officials Warn of Scam

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 17, 2006

Caller ID says the call is coming from U.S. District Court in Washington. The voice on the line claims to belong to an official tracking down scofflaws who have ignored their jury summonses. A warrant, the voice says, is about to be issued for your arrest.

Don't be fooled.

A scam that has been perpetrated in the United States since at least 2001 has landed in the nation's capital, court officials said. Since September, about 15 people have reported calls accusing them of skipping out on jury duty in federal court in Washington.

The callers ask for personal information, such as Social Security and credit card numbers, ostensibly so the startled recipient -- who may or may not live in the District -- can avoid arrest by paying a fine.

But court officials here and elsewhere say they never pursue AWOL jurors by telephone. And law enforcement authorities say the scheme is simply an attempt to steal personal and financial information for monetary gain.

Last week, court officials decided to post a warning on the Web site of the District's federal courthouse, http://www.dcd.uscourts.gov , telling people not to pay fines or give out information and asking them to report suspicious calls.

"They're spoofing the courthouse number," said Sheldon Snook, administrative assistant to Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan. "We've received calls from people out of state. Who knows how many people have been called? We don't know how broad this is."

The http://www.snopes.com Web site, which investigate scams and urban legends, has written about such bogus calls, which have been reported in Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington State. The scheme surfaced in the Washington region -- Charles County -- two years ago, the Snopes Web site says.

Authorities say bogus calls have been reported to state and federal courts, and the information is generally turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. attorney or the FBI. Several law enforcement officials said they were not aware of any major investigations into who is making the calls.

Snook said none of the people who reported fraudulent calls to the D.C. federal courthouse gave out their credit card data or Social Security numbers. But, he added, others might have done so and never reported the calls, believing them to be legitimate.

From 45,000 to 50,000 D.C. residents are summoned to U.S. District Court for jury duty each year, Snook said. Under a policy recently adopted by the court, people who fail to appear can be summoned to a hearing to explain why. D.C. Superior Court has a similar program.

If they still don't show up, an arrest warrant may be issued. But the unwilling juror will find that out when a U.S. marshal nabs him, Snook said, not over the phone.

Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.

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