Michael Gardner was suspicious, but fear took over. Part of him thought the call he got late last month could be a scam. Yet with heavy-handed pressure, a man identifying himself as a sheriff’s sergeant convinced him he faced real trouble.
“They said I had failed to report to jury duty,” said Gardner, 45, who lives in Snohomish. He didn’t trust his suspicions, and is now $3,000 poorer.
Gardner was targeted by the jury scam, Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said Wednesday. It’s a shakedown that surfaced several years ago here and nationwide. Someone claiming to be from law enforcement calls, saying the victim has missed jury duty and asking that they buy a prepaid credit card or money order.
“It comes and goes in spurts. We’ve had reports of the scam as recently as Monday,” Ireton said. “No one from an official county agency — the courts, clerk, sheriff’s office or police — no police will ever call to say they’re coming to arrest you. None of us would demand money over the phone.”
A tattoo artist, husband and father of teenagers, Gardner has had his Everett shop, Tattoo Garden, since 2008.
On June 26, he received a message on his cellphone. He returned the call, leaving a message. The next day, June 27, two people called him back. One identified himself as a “Sgt. Miller” from the sheriff’s office, and even gave a badge number — which Gardner didn’t check.
He was told he’d been notified of jury duty by certified mail. The caller said he had signed the letter but failed to show up. “I’ve had jury duty before, and the notice didn’t come in certified mail. But things change,” Gardner said. “I had no recollection of signing anything.”
What was so threatening that he acted in haste?
“They said I was essentially being taken into custody over the phone,” he said. The caller told him a bench warrant had been issued for his arrest. “I was told there was a judge involved, that I was under supervision by a judge, and that if I cooperated they would talk me through this procedure.”
The callers stayed on the line as Gardner first went to his credit union to withdraw $3,000, and then to Rite Aid and QFC stores on Everett’s Evergreen Way to buy six $500 MoneyPak cards. The cards are used to reload prepaid cards.
“MoneyPaks have a rub-off number. I read that over the phone,” he said. As soon as he shared those numbers, his cash was gone. “They remained on the phone, it was constant pressure,” he said. Told he would spend at least three days in jail and could face up to a year behind bars, Gardner said “I was unable to get my bearings.”
Gardner had suspicions throughout the ordeal, but said “I wasn’t confident enough to not go through with it.
“I felt at risk enough to keep me on the phone. It’s not a simple matter of trusting your gut. The risk felt so much higher than just losing money,” Gardner said.
At one point, he was told he’d be reimbursed if his signature didn’t match the one on the certified letter, and that he should take his MoneyPak receipts to a kiosk at the sheriff’s office.
When he went to the sheriff’s office at the courthouse campus in Everett, Gardner learned for sure he’d been swindled. “I said ‘I don’t know if I need to turn myself in or file a police report,’ ” he recalled. There, he discovered he didn’t have any warrants and it was all a fraud.
Later that day, he reported what had happened to the Snohomish Police Department, a contract force that is part of the sheriff’s office.
“Snohomish police said it goes in cycles,” said Gardner, who has since learned one of his neighbors lost $4,500 to the jury scam. An officer told him the perpetrators were probably not in the United States.
Ireton said that anyone getting a call about jury duty, grandchildren in peril or any other high-pressure demand for money should hang up. “The sad thing is that 98 percent of people out there want to do the right thing. If they’ve made a mistake, they want to rectify it,” she said.
“If you can’t verify information, don’t trust it,” said Gardner, whose loss has cut into family vacation plans.
“The instinct is not to tell people, to be so embarrassed and ashamed,” he said. Gardner is sharing what happened to spare others — to spare you. “It’s an expensive lesson,” he said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.