And since June, police say, 26 residents of Montgomery County, Md., have been bilked out of a total of $1.5 million.
“When I look back on all the red flags, it’s like, ‘How could I have been duped this way?’ ” said one the victims, a 61-year-old psychotherapist who lost $7,000.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, she was called by a man identifying himself as Detective Scott Feldman of the Montgomery County Police Department. The purported investigator said the woman had ducked a subpoena to testify as an expert witness in a criminal trial involving a confidential juvenile matter. She was offered a “civil option” of paying her fines to avoid jail time.
The problem, the alleged detective stressed, was that because of the coronavirus, people couldn’t come into police headquarters to settle such matters. He said she needed to purchase “MoneyPak” electronic cash transfer cards — at one point transferring the call to his purported supervisor, who also had assumed the name of a real Montgomery officer.
“To feel so violated is existentially unsettling,” she recalled, describing in neurological terms how brains react to being put into fight-or-flight mode. “Your amygdala has taken off. You can’t engage your prefrontal cortex to think.”
The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing for her safety and the risk of being targeted again. She shared with The Washington Post the written, detailed narrative of her experience she had given to the genuine police, who confirmed it as the report they received.
There is an actual “Scott Feldman” at Montgomery’s police department. But he is a patrolman, not a detective, and had nothing to do with the scam, police said.
“It makes me sick to my stomach that criminals are using my name to victimize people,” Feldman said through a police spokesman.
Since June, Montgomery investigators have heard from about 30 residents whom the scammers approached by phone or text, according to Detective Brandon Mengedoht, a longtime fraud investigator who said the victims lost between $800 and more than $200,000.
The oldest victim, Mengedoht said, was an 80-year-old trained research scientist.
“Some of these people are professionals,” Mengedoht said. “They’re smart at other things, but they panicked and didn’t think things through.”
It’s unclear where the scammers are calling from — possibly California, Texas or overseas, Mengedoht said. They have used “spoofing” technology to give the appearance that their calls originated from lines within the county department.
Scammers told some targets that their names had surfaced in a drug-smuggling investigation and asked people to be at their homes in a few minutes because investigators needed to search them. When the targets tried to correct the assertion, the fraudsters switched gears, suggesting that the smugglers must have stolen the target’s identity.
Or the fraudsters started directly with that approach.
“They’d say, ‘A car registered to you just crossed from Mexico into Texas as part of a sex-trafficking ring. We know it’s not yours. But here’s what you need to do to help us catch them,’ ” Mengedoht said.
The scammers worked hard to keep their targets from hanging up and said they needed to act quickly to avoid being further implicated and outed in “the media,” Mengedoht said. They even stayed on the phone as victims drove around buying MoneyPak cards or gift cards to convey the cash, he said. The scammers argued that such nontraditional payments to the government would prevent the supposed wrongdoing of targets from being exposed publicly, Mengedoht said. The same logic, the detective added, was used to suggest purchasing bitcoin, a digital currency that can be traded.
In several cases, targets were persuaded to ship cash. The largest payment: about $100,000, stuffed into a shoe box, and express-delivered to someone in California, Mengedoht said.
Hoping to raise awareness of the scams, the department recently released a recorded voice mail left by one of the scammers. It spoke of imminent arrest warrants while invoking another government-sounding entity.
“You have one last chance to contact our Department of Social Security Administration,” the caller said.
The illogic of such a suggestion, Mengedoht said, can get lost on someone who is scared and intimidated.
In the case of the psychotherapist, the scammers leveraged information they had learned about their target — that she had testified as an expert witness before — to put her on the defensive about how not clearing up the subpoena issue could tarnish her reputation.
“The message was, ‘We believe you; we’ll clear your name; and you’re in really big trouble,’ ” she wrote in her statement to the real detectives.
She also listed nine “red flags” that in retrospect should have alerted her to danger. The last one: “As soon as I provided the last of the [cash transfer] numbers to ‘Agent Gilmore,’ the speed of communication picked up — he wanted to break it off and ended the call abruptly. That’s the point at which I knew I had been scammed.”