The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office is working with the FBI and other federal agencies to track and catch a ring of phone scammers who have duped countless victims across the country, including a number of Santa Barbara and Ventura residents. The scammers pose as court employees or law enforcement officials, convince victims they have an outstanding warrant for skipping jury duty, and explain they must pay a fine — typically around $500 — or risk arrest. Hundreds of S.B. residents have been contacted in recent weeks, and on February 19 alone, around 25 showed up at the Sheriff’s Office to pay the fake warrant.
The ploy is sophisticated and sneaky, as the suspects use caller ID manipulation software to make it look like their calls are coming directly from Sheriff’s offices. They also conduct cursory research on their marks — obtaining addresses and other basic personal information from online sources — for an added level of supposed legitimacy. To clear the warrant and avoid arrest, the scammers tell their victims, they must buy a prepaid credit card — specifically the Green Dot MoneyPak brand found in most drug and grocery stores — and read the card’s numbers over the phone.
Santa Barbara Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover explained her department never collects money or notifies individuals of outstanding warrants over the phone. “If you get a call of this nature, hang up and call the Sheriff’s Office directly to report the incident,” she advised. Hoover also said that the Sheriff’s Office is talking with stores that sell prepaid credit cards so they can warn potential victims. Santa Barbara police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood said his department has received a few calls on the same issue but not at the same volume as the Sheriff’s. He said police are similarly advising residents about the scam and how to avoid it.
Santa Barbara resident Virgina Gibson, 73, said she’s embarrassed for falling for the ruse but hopes that publicly detailing her experience will help others avoid being fooled. Gibson said she received a call Wednesday on her home’s land line from a person who identified himself as Lt. Adams of the court system’s warrant division. After verifying her address, the man told Gibson that she hadn’t responded to a Grand Jury summons and that a $493.09 bench warrant — a combination of three separate fines — had been issued for her. He told her to get a prepaid Green Dot MoneyPak credit card from any nearby Walgreens or Rite-Aid and then provide him its number.
“Authority is God to me, so I fell right into it,” Gibson said, explaining her father and grandfather were both judges and that she grew up with an unwavering faith in authority figures. “I’m not a stupid person,” Gibson went on. “I just got caught up in an emotional situation that hooked me right away, and my first instinct was to fix it. I walked right into the sand like a sheep.” Gibson said the caller was very matter-of-fact but spoke quickly and with a heavy “Okie” accent.
After withdrawing $500 in cash and purchasing the credit card, Gibson said she read its number over the phone and assumed everything had been taken care of. However, another person who claimed to be a captain in the court’s warrant division contacted later in the day and said she actually had another $180 fine to pay. At this point, Gibson said, she became suspicious and started asking questions. The man immediately hung up. Gibson said she’s under no illusion she’ll be able to recoup her lost $493.09 but hopes others avoid the ploy and the perpetrators are eventually caught. “The money is gone,” she said, “but if I can help someone else, I’m willing to put my name and face out there.”