Area businesswoman breaks down how she was scammed for $1,000; warns other potential victims

Published 12:30 am Wednesday, August 10, 2022

A Southeast Texas businesswoman is telling how she was scammed out of $1,000 in hopes to save others from the same.

Cheryl Underhill feels psychologically and financially violated after becoming a victim of a jury duty scam.

The scam involves a caller pretending to be law enforcement and claims the victim missed a jury summons and needs to pay citations or be arrested. To keep from going to jail, the victim is told to pay a fine with gift cards.

The jury duty scam is starting to appear more frequently across the state and beyond.

Underhill is a licensed professional counselor who holds a master’s degree. She’s familiar with scams that come and go but when she received a call last week from a man claiming to be Deputy Marshal John Garrison with a called ID showing USA GOV, she took note.

The local woman was returning from a beach trip and had two friends in the car with her when the call came in. The male caller said she signed a grand jury duty summons saying she would appear in court but did not appear — and now there were two warrants for her arrest then hung up.

Panicking, Underhill had one of her friends with her call the number back and eventually reached the caller who would only speak with Underhill.

Worried about the warrants, she called the man and was told to resolve the matter she needed to pay $1,500.

“He said, ‘Ms. Underhill, I want to help you take care of this’ and he’s still got this attitude and is pressuring. He said we cannot take credit cards, we cannot take debit cards, we cannot take checks. You’re going to have to do this with gift cards,” Underhill said.

She told the scammer she knows the importance of jury duty but he pressed on saying she would need to go to the Beaumont Sheriff’s Office or the Port Arthur Sheriff’s Office then he provided the location for the Port Arthur Subcourthouse.

A photo of Cheryl Underhill’s phone history showing the scam call “USA GOV.” (Mary Meaux/The Leader)

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The scammer told her there were four stipulations she must follow: she must agree to an open line of communication meaning stay on the line with the scammer the whole time, have two forms of identification, one with photo and one without, pay the preset ‘retainer’ fee that would be refunded once her signature was verified.

And lastly, she must agree to a confidentiality clause as this was an open investigation.

Underhill explained to the scammer she did not have that kind of money laying around and the caller suggested she go to her bank, which she did.

“It was almost closing time at the bank. I don’t remember what I said, something like do I have a credit card that I can get a cash advance on it? I need $1,500,” she said.

Upset and still on the phone with the caller she left the bank and went to the ATM.

“I go outside and I’m frantically pressing buttons and only get $28 I was so nervous,” she said. “It shut me down, thank God.”

The caller kept asking her “ETA” and she asked what that meant. He said the estimated time of arrival.

While still on the phone she stops at a Tiger Mart and starts pulling out cash $200 at a time until the ATM denied her any more access.

She also went to a Walgreens, where she was instructed to get a Target gift card and a Visa gift card. She was to go back to her car and give him the numbers on the cards and he would give her a verification number to take care of the retainer.

While at Walgreens she bought a $500 card but the clerk wouldn’t allow her to buy a second one, saying she had reached her limit.

But when she called with the numbers the scammer said one of the cards came back with a problem and she’d have to get another $1,000 worth of cards.

By now Underhill is frantic, worried about being arrested and digging into hurricane evacuation money and bill money.

A text Underhill received from the scammer warning of her arrest. (Mary Meaux/The Leader)

Saving grace

By this time she had been on the phone with the caller for around three hours, driving up and down FM 365, in and out of businesses. The final stop was Target. She got to a register and told the clerk she needed to get $1,000 worth of gift cards and a young woman walked up and said, “ma’am, may I ask you what these are for?”

Knowing the scammer was on the phone and she was sworn to confidentiality, she whispered she was on the phone with a deputy marshal and if he didn’t get the cards, she’d be arrested.

“She said, ‘ma’am, this is a scam. You’re getting scammed,’” she said.

Underhill told her, “no, the man on the call was a deputy marshal.”

That’s when the employee said she’s with the fraud unit at the store and asked if Underhill wanted her to speak with him.

“Target’s got it together. She saw my distress and she’s willing to intervene,” Underhill said.

The employee called the scammer out, saying Underhill would not be giving him any more gift cards and to leave her alone. She advised Underhill to file a police report.

The man called back a second time and the clerk again called him out.

Underhill left the store, blocked the number but received two voicemails from a male voice claiming to be a different deputy. This time he was Deputy Marshal Michael O’Connor with the United States Citation Department.

Aftermath

Underhill has filed a report with the Port Arthur Police Department and has called the Texas Attorney General’s Office to alert them of the crime. She is working on getting her money back from the gift cards, as well.

She did some digging and found the scammer used the names of real law enforcement officers from East Texas and plans to let them know their names are being used.

She did not see a red flag when the scammer wanted payment in gift cards.

“Anybody can be a victim,” she said. “In the course of my business, one of the options now being used is a virtual credit card.”

The card is similar to the gift card, she said.

According to the United States Eastern District of Texas, the scammers impersonate court officials, U.S. Marshals or other law enforcement officers and call people to try and convince them to pay a fine to avoid arrest.

A court will always send a jury summons by U.S. mail and will never demand payment or sensitive information over the phone.

In most cases, a prospective juror who disregards a summons will be contacted by the court clerk’s office and may, in certain circumstances, be ordered to appear before a judge.  A fine may be imposed but not until the court appearance, during which an individual has the opportunity to explain a failure to appear, according to the Court website.

“We want to make the public aware of telephonic and impersonation scams so they can avoid becoming victims,” David Harlow, acting director of the U.S. Marshals Service, said. “Please be assured that the U.S. Marshals Service will never call anyone to arrange payment of fines over the phone for failure to appear for jury duty, for outstanding warrants, or for any other infraction.”

— By Mary Meaux