The holiday season hasn’t stopped scammers from targeting Burke County residents this year.
The latest tactic being used has scammers identifying themselves as Lt. Westbrook, claiming that the victim missed jury duty and a warrant has been issued for their arrest, according to a release from the Burke County Sheriff’s Office.
However, there is no Lt. Westbrook with the Burke County Sheriff’s Office, according to Sheriff Steve Whisenant.
To have the charge dismissed, “Westbrook” told victims they needed to purchase prepaid VISA debit cards and give him the card number, the release said.
He has said the person should mail the cards to the sheriff’s office, claiming the address was 175 Government Drive in Morganton.
That address does not exist, according to the release. The actual address for the sheriff’s office is 150 Government Drive.
From there, “Westbrook” has told victims they need to have a meeting with Judge Erwin. Again, there is no Judge Erwin in Burke County. There is, however, a Judge Robert C. Ervin.
“This is a SCAM,” the release said. “Do not send any money in this situation. You would never be directed to send money in this manner for missing jury duty.”
Several victims have dropped by the Burke County Courthouse trying to meet with the fake judge only to find out they’ve been scammed out of money.
Julie French, who works in the clerk of court’s office, said she has seen several people over the past two weeks come to the courthouse hoping to meet with a judge named Erwin.
One person in particular had purchased $500 worth of the prepaid debit cards, and already had given the scammer the card numbers.
“She sent $500, went and got it on a pay card, and she mailed it,” French said. “Then went into check with us and by that point, she had already mailed the money and we realized that was a scam.”
That wasn’t the only person to fall prey to the scammer. French said some people have sent the scammers $1,500 in gift cards.
Reporters spoke to one of the victims Wednesday, who said she got a call from the scammer and claimed that there was a warrant for her arrest for failure to appear for jury duty.
“He said because you failed to appear, you now have a bench warrant against you,” the victim, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “He said ‘I’m going to tell you how to get out of this without a lot of your neighbors knowing, et cetera, et cetera.”
The scammer explained what she needed to do several times because she said she was flabbergasted.
“I couldn’t even think,” the victim said. “He had me to call back a number ... he said that was the Burke County Clerk of Court’s Office and to select option 2.”
That number was not the clerk of court’s office. Reporters attempted to call the number Wednesday, but it had been disconnected.
The scammer kept the victim on the phone with him while she drove to the store to get the debit cards.
“He said because I had a bench warrant against me then I would have to stay on the line with him until I showed up at the sheriff’s department because if I would get stopped by law enforcement I would automatically be arrested because of the bench warrant,” the victim said.
He told her she needed to buy two My Vanilla debit cards because the sheriff’s office did not accept cash.
“I purchased them for $500 (each), I got two for $1,000,” the victim said.
The scammer then had the victim give the card numbers to a Mary Wilson, who he claimed worked for the clerk’s office.
Clerk of court officials said there was a Mary Wilson who worked in the district attorney’s office at one point, but she had moved to another department and did not work for the clerk of court’s office.
After talking to the scammer some more, he told her one of the gift cards didn’t work and that she needed to get another $500 gift card. He said she would be refunded for one of the cards.
That was when she started to realize the caller was scamming her. She said she went to a friend’s office, who called BCSO for her. She already had mailed the gift cards, and BCSO told her she should try to retrieve the gift cards from the mail if possible.
She wasn’t able to get the gift cards before they were mailed, but they were automatically redirected to BCSO, she said.
However, it was too late for one of the cards. The victim contacted My Vanilla the same day she purchased them, but one of the cards had already been depleted with just about $10 left on it. The other hadn’t been used.
“They’re very good at what they do,” the victim said. “They have an answer for everything.”
While the legal terminology used by the scammer might sound convincing, what actually happens when someone misses jury duty is a different story.
“Normally what happens ... if you miss jury duty, the judge will ‘show cause’ you and a ‘show cause (document)’ will be sent out to you to tell you that you’ve missed by the sheriff’s department and they will give you another date to report,” French said. “The judge will decide if you’re going to serve another date, or he could fine you up to $50 but that would be the maximum fine.”
The scam victim who spoke to reporters said she normally doesn’t fall for scams, but the scammer was convincing.
“I have never fell for a scam in my life, but I did for this one,” she said. “Hook, line and sinker. They were so good at what they did.”
She’s hoping to recover the $500 that hadn’t been used, but said now she’s afraid to answer her phone as the scammer was calling from a seemingly local number.
For the scammer who contacted her, the victim had a suggestion.
“Get a job,” she said. “Quit trying to take advantage of people.”