The Jury Duty Scam: How Criminals Make Big Bucks from Your Civic Obligation

Over the past few years, the true crime genre has enjoyed a surge in popularity.  Fans are consuming books, podcasts, Netflix series, and lightly fictionalized “based on true events” feature films in huge numbers, and the dark sitcom Only Murders in the Building even leveraged the craze (and its own star power) to become a hit. 

It seems the only place true crime isn’t a big hit is — paradoxically — in the call to jury duty, where you can experience it first-hand.  It’s an important civic duty: one that some will embrace, some will endure, and some will avoid if they can.  For scammers, it’s even simpler.  Jury duty is just a lever they can use to pry money or personal information from you, by way of the notorious “jury duty scam.”  Here’s how it works. 

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Table of Contents:

How the Jury Duty Scam Works

Why the Jury Duty Scam Story Doesn’t Add Up

What to Do if You Recieve a Jury Duty Scam Call

What to Do if You’ve Fallen Victim to the Jury Duty Scam

Anatomy Of a Jury Duty Scam Call — How it Works

Jury duty scam calls vary slightly from scammer to scammer, but the overall pattern goes something like this: 

  • A call comes in on your phone, often displaying the legitimate number of your local courts or perhaps a US Marshals’ office (because it’s all too easy for scammers to “spoof” a legitimate number and fool your Caller ID). 
  • The caller may claim to be a marshal, or a police officer, or an officer of your local court.  That part varies, but the message is the same: you’ve blown off a summons to jury duty, and now you’ve got to pay a hefty fine or face jail time. 
  • If you protest that you don’t remember seeing this fake jury duty summons (because it’s purely fictional, and they don’t know or care if you’ve ever gotten one), the caller will grudgingly allow that it might be a case of mistaken identity.  They may then ask you to provide your SSN or other personal information to verify whether their records are correct.
  • With or without that digression, the caller will insist that there’s a bench warrant for your arrest and that it’s imperative you pay a fine immediately in order to avoid serving time. 
  • The caller walks you through payment by way of prepaid debit, or gift cards, or wire transfer — all methods that are difficult to trace or reverse once they’re sent, and a hallmark of scam activity. 

Not all scammers approach things the same way.  Some are very much the heavy-handed bully, while others play the role of a sympathetic administrator helping you navigate a hostile system that’s somehow mistakenly put you in a bad position.  Whether they make you feel afraid or reassured, the end result is the same: they’ve got your money, and if you’re really unfortunate they’ll have your personal information as well.

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The Story Doesn’t Add Up (If You Think About It)

Urgency is one thing the jury duty scam shares with the other common phone scams.  There’s a real push to get you to act immediately, and they don’t want to give you any opportunity to slow down and actually think about what they’re telling you.  That’s important in any scam, but especially in this one because there are a lot of weak spots in it. 

What are some of those details, you ask? Well… 

  • Real summonses come by first-class mail, meaning a phone call won’t be the first you hear of it.  Sure, mail can occasionally go astray, but it’s not common. 
  • Courts typically close at the end of the business day, but a clerk is calling you at home at night?  Really?  Or a marshal is calling to tell you they’re going to arrest you, instead of just showing up at your door?  That doesn’t happen. 
  • If you miss a legitimate jury duty summons, federal courts and most other jurisdictions will send you a followup letter with a summons to appear before the judge and explain yourself.  You’ll always be given an opportunity to defer jury duty or withdraw entirely, if you have a legitimate reason.
  • If you do miss a legitimate juror summons, or if you simply blow off jury duty, the worst that happens is what’s called a “bench” warrant.  Nobody’s actively looking for you, but if you happen to be pulled over or otherwise have an encounter with the legal/court system, it will show up when they check your name. 
  • The supposed “fine” is ridiculously high, often several hundred or even thousands of dollars.  That’s much, much higher than the real-world fines for this offense.  For example, in North Carolina — which has been hit hard by this scam over the years — the real fine is just $50 (at the time of writing). 
  • Demanding payment (or personal information) over the phone is something real officers of the court simply don’t do. 
  • Similarly, demanding payment in the form of gift cards, prepaid cards, or wire transfers is an absolute show-stopping red flag.  Real courts will never do this.  If you ever need to pay a fine at the court, most will cheerfully take cash, credit card, or any other conventional payment method. 

This is why jury duty scammers never give you a moment to stop and think about what you’re hearing.  If they did, their whole house of cards would fall apart. 

What to Do About a Jury Duty Scam Call

If a jury duty scam call comes your way, the simplest and best thing to do is hang up immediately and make a note of the number the call came from.  Next, search for it using Spokeo’s Reverse Phone Lookup.  If it’s not the number of a local court or US Marshal’s office, then you’ve probably caught a scammer.

What if the scammers spoofed a legitimate number, or if the call simply showed as a “private” or “restricted” number?  Well, the Spokeo search result for a legitimate number also has a box labeled “Phone Reputation Score.”  One of the things you’ll see in that box is whether there have been complaints about that number.  If there are complaints for a legitimate number, that’s often a sign it’s been spoofed by scammers.  In the case of a private number there are several ways to unmask it and hunt it down through Spokeo (and ways to do the same if you live in one of the few areas where your phone carrier doesn’t offer Caller ID). 

If there’s any doubt in your mind about the legitimacy of the call, look up the local court or marshal’s office the next day and reach out to them for confirmation.  If you really did miss a summons, you can make things right on your own terms . If it was a scammer, you can take the opportunity to report that call to the courts (and then local law enforcement, and maybe the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) or the FTC’s Report Fraud website). 

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If You’ve Fallen For a Jury Duty Scam

In a worst-case scenario, you may have already fallen for some variation on the jury duty scam. 

If you’ve sent money by gift card or prepaid card, you can try contacting the card’s issuer — with the original card and receipt in hand — and asking them to reverse it.  Similarly, for wire transfers you can reach out to MoneyGram, Western Union, or Ria with the details and ask them to reverse that transfer.  Historically these companies have not usually refunded money lost to scams, but they’ve been under increasing pressure from legislators to be more responsive.  It can’t hurt to ask, in any case, and the more quickly you act the better your chances.  

The FTC has a more in-depth guide to follow, if you’ve been scammed, and we’ve published one too.  If you’ve also given the scammers your personal information you’ll need to take steps like reaching out to your bank and the major credit reporting agencies to limit the damage the scammers can do by stealing your identity.  Recovering from identity theft can take a while, and rebuilding your credit (if necessary) is a whole other project, but if you persevere everything will fall back into place over time. 

Just One In a Long Line of Scams

There are a lot of scams out there, and while a fake jury duty summons (or more accurately, the threat of one) is alarming and potentially costly, it’s actually one of the easier ones to spot.  And let’s face it, it’s a lot less damaging psychologically than — for example — a romance scam, which breaks your heart while looting your wallet. 

As always, the key to avoiding these scams is being aware of them (so pat yourself on the back for reading this far), and exercising a healthy degree of skepticism about dubious calls.  Legitimate situations can always be dealt with tomorrow, so for tonight just hang up the phone (turn it off if you have to) and sleep soundly.  The best true-crime stories are the ones you’re not involved in. 

Fred Decker is a prolific freelance writer based in Atlantic Canada, with articles appearing in print and online since 2007. He writes primarily on technology, personal finance, and food and foodservice, drawing on previous careers in those industries. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia Community College, and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Sources

AARP: Jury Duty Scams

US Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Georgia: Federal Court and the US Attorney’s Office Warn Citizens About Ongoing Jury Scams

North Carolina Judicial Branch: Jury Service Scams

US Federal Bureau of Investigation: Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)

US Federal Trade Commission: Report to Help Fight Fraud!

US Federal Trade Commission: Gift Card Scams

US Federal Trade Commission: What to Do if You Were Scammed

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