A local doctor received a call saying he had warrants for his arrest for failing to appear in federal court. The doctor didn't know anything about having a court date, but he took immediate action to pay a hefty fine and avoid arrest.
The doctor went to a Diamondhead CVS pharmacy to put $17,000 on a Green Dot money card. The scammer, pretending to be with the Hancock County Sheriff's Department, would get the doctor's PIN for his card and use it to take the cash.
The doctor was trying to complete the transaction when a store clerk told him it was a scam, Chief Deputy Don Bass said.
At least five other professionals, mostly doctors and dentists, have reported the scam to the Hancock County Sheriff's Department and Diamondhead Police.
“They're panicking,” said Bass.
Bass is taking it personally and for more than one reason.
“I'm convinced there are quite a few people on the Coast who have been scammed but were too embarrassed to report it,” Bass said. “I know it's happening in other areas on the Coast. We need to get the word out so people know it's a scam.”
'I'm Chief Deputy Bass'
The con artist pretended to be Bass in a phone call this week.
A Hancock County detective checking on the doctor's complaint called the phone number.
The man on the line answered the phone saying, "Hancock County Sheriff's Office."
The detective played along for a while and then asked to speak to Bass. The detective wanted to see what the fake deputy would say, Bass said.
“I'm Chief Deputy Bass,” the man on the line said.
“No, you're not,” the detective replied. “I'm standing right next to him."
The man on the line hung up, Bass said.
'Have you been drinking?'
The Sun Herald called the phone number Bass provided, a number with a "463" prefix. A message recorded by a woman said it was the Hancock County Sheriff's Office. It sounded official and gave prompts for different services, like pressing "1" to reach a warrants officer.
"Warrants Office," said the woman who answered the call. The Sun Herald pretended to be asking for a friend, but wouldn't give the friend's name, and asked if the office has the authority to call people about fines.
"No," she said. "Have you been drinking?"
The scammers are using a spoofed phone number. Spoofing is changing the caller ID on a phone to a different number, often a local number. Bass said the scammers use "a burner phone," a pre-paid cellphone so inexpensive they can throw it away later and not be traced.
Bass said it's bad enough that the public has to endure annoying robo calls, such as those from the fictitious “Heather from Account Services” or “Rachel from Card Services.” Such scammers give false promises of a cheap auto warranty, or a credit card with a low interest rate or none at all.
Making people believe they are talking to law enforcement is a low blow and can scare them into falling for the scam, Bass said.
These types of scam calls are being made to people in Long Beach, and possibly in Gulfport and Biloxi, Bass said.
“It seems this started in Moss Point and the crooks have been able to keep the scam going and expand their area,” he said.
“We want people to know that we don't call them if they fail to appear in court. The court sends them a letter.”
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Ezell reported a similar scam in April 2017.
Law enforcement does not call people to tell them they've missed court or to demand money for fines, Bass said. Courts send letters on those matters.
Here's what you can do
An active scam network can make millions of calls, the Federal Trade Commission says.
There's not much police can do. The FTC has handled these types of complaints for years.
If you get such a call, hang up and find the phone number for the law enforcement agency and report it. You can also use Google to find reverse lookup to see if the phone number is associated with a scam, according to Lifewire.com.
You also can block a number on your phone and register online for Mississippi's do-not call list. You can also register for the National Do Not Call List by calling 1-888-382-1222, but spoofing numbers can change quickly.