Impersonating a federal court official is a federal offense that can be punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to three years imprisonment.
But that doesn’t appear to be enough to dissuade some bold con artists from using the New Mexico federal court system as the foundation for a scam to frighten residents into paying bogus fines under the threat of arrest.
Not once, but twice.
Late last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico issued a warning about two new schemes – one by mail, one by phone – intended to pry confidential financial information out of their unsuspecting victims.
Both claimed a warrant had been issued for their arrest, but they could avoid it by agreeing to pay a fine. And the telephone version was made to seem all the more legitimate by the use of “spoofing” technology, which transmits the court’s actual phone number onto the recipient’s caller ID device.
“These requests are not legitimate and do not originate from the court or other court-related agencies,” the Albuquerque-based court said in a Nov. 22 news release. “Federal courts do not require anyone to provide sensitive information in a telephone call, including requests for Social Security numbers or credit-card numbers.”
This was the second time in four months that federal court officials felt the need to issue a public warning about a court-related scam operating in the region.
In August, the court reported that some local residents were being called and threatened with arrest for not showing up for jury service in either federal or state courts.
Like the more recent scam, callers used the threat of a fine to persuade their targets to disclose sensitive financial information, putting them at risk of fraudulent credit-card activity or identity theft.
The jury version has been around for nearly a decade – New Mexico court officials issued a warning about this one as far back as August 2005 – and shows no sign of dissipating around the country.
In recent months, for example, there have been reports of people running this scam in Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington state, among other states.
Mitch Elfers, chief deputy clerk at the federal court in Albuquerque, said last week that staff received a handful of calls about the jury scam one day in August – all from residents of Santa Fe. That was enough to prompt court officials to issue a public warning and to notify the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in Washington, D.C.
As for the more recent scam, Elfers said the use of spoofing technology adds an “air of validity” to these calls, since it gives the impression they are coming directly from the federal court.
Elfers said he wasn’t aware of anyone in New Mexico who had fallen for the scams by either paying the fine or disclosing personal financial information, such as a Social Security or credit card number.
Still, that doesn’t mean they haven’t come close.
Last month, an Albuquerque woman told KOB-TV that she received a voicemail message alerting her that a felony warrant was about to be issued for her arrest over a bad check from a few years earlier.
When she called the number left on the recording, she was told it would cost her $430 to cancel the warrant and clear her record. But before disclosing her credit-card information, she started to ask a few questions, which resulted in the caller hanging up.
It wasn’t until she contacted the federal court directly that she learned the whole thing was a scam.
So what should you do if you get one of these calls or letters in the mail?
First and foremost, court officials say, don’t pay the phony fine or reveal any personal information. Instead, contact the Albuquerque FBI office at 505-889-1300 and choose the first option when prompted.
And if you want to be sure there are no pending actions against you in the federal court, you can call the court directly at 505-348-2000.
Finally, Elfers offered the following tip for anyone who receives a “bad news” call – whether it purports to come from a federal court, a police department, business or organization.
“My recommendation would be … if you are the recipient of a call with bad news,” he said, “take down the info, hang up and call right back.”
Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.