Almost every day, we hear about phone scammers who are targeting people on the sexual offense registry. The incidents, which reportedly got their start a few years ago in Texas, are now being reported in increasing numbers all over the country. The frequency of incidents and their widening geographical reach is an ominous indicator that enough registrants are being taken advantage of that the scheme continues to be profitable for the perpetrators.

In a nutshell, the phone scam starts with a phone call from someone who claims to be a law enforcement officer.  The caller ID will often show a number that corresponds to a real local law enforcement agency, since the scammers use special software to “spoof” the caller ID. He sounds professional and is very convincing. So convincing, in fact, that it’s been theorized by many that at least some of the scammers may be former or currently serving but corrupt law enforcement officers.

He tells you that you are out of compliance in some way and that there is a warrant out for your arrest. He gauges your initial reaction, and if it isn’t sufficiently panicky, the phony cop often becomes belligerent in an effort to ratchet up your emotions. Then, he offers a quick solution to your little “problem.” All you have to do is pay a large sum of money (anywhere from $300 to $5000) to make it all just go away.

Sometimes, it’s framed as a fine. Other times, a fee or a surety bond. However the scammer frames it, the bottom line is, it’s extortion. To assure his own anonymity, the scammer instructs you to purchase a gift card or pre-paid debit card and then read the access codes to him over the phone. That allows him to pocket your money without ever having to reveal his real identity or location.

It’s usually at this point that most people realize it’s a scam. After all, what real-world court demands that you pay your fines and fees with Amazon or iTunes gift cards? But fear makes us believe and do crazy things. Even if we assume that only one registrant in twenty actually falls for the scheme, the potential pay-off for this criminal enterprise is enormous.

phone-scam111One of the most frustrating things about this scam is the fact that the scammers could be operating from anywhere in the world. The ability to spoof the caller ID and the wide availability of cheap and anonymous internet-based phone services means “tracing the call” is usually impossible. Even in the rare instances where an IP address can be traced, it usually turns out to be originating from another state or a foreign country, which means it is outside the jurisdiction of the local law enforcement agency you’d likely report the incident to.

Having a phony cop threaten you over the telephone can be frightening enough, but what happens when a scammer shows up at your front door? As unlikely as that may sound, it has happened to a handful of registrants across the country and, unfortunately, it has happened to me, as well. More accurately, it happened not to me, but to my spouse while I was incarcerated and it happened not once, but on three separate occasions.

The first involved a person claiming to be my parole or probation officer. Since I had not yet been convicted of any crime, the validity of that claim would certainly be very suspect to anyone who knows anything about the federal court system.  Unfortunately, my spouse wasn’t (and still isn’t) one of those people. She was too rattled to ask for identification and probably wouldn’t have known what to look for even if she had. But to her credit, she had the good sense to not allow the person into the house and refused to let the person push her around. She eventually just slammed the door in his face.

phony-copsThe second incident involved two people claiming to be plain-clothes police officers. Despite the fact that my wife is at her core a suspicious person, she was at first inclined to believe them… at least until they started demanding money from her. Anyone who knows my wife knows that she can be the sweetest person on the planet, at least until you start talking about money.  If money is involved, all I can do is channel Mr. T in saying, “I pity the fool that gets between my wife and her money.” She sent them packing.

The third incident was the most baffling of the three. It occurred while I was still being held in a county jail some 200 miles from home awaiting sentencing. A strange woman appeared at our front door claiming to be carrying my “love child” and demanding money from my wife. Since both I and my wife had many years previously taken the surgical steps necessary to ensure that such a thing could never happen, the only thing this woman got was a painful scolding and heaps of ridicule.

I can look back now and laugh at some of those incidents, imagining my wife giving the scammers her “don’t mess with a crazy asian lady waving a kitchen knife” routine, but at the time, we honestly didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. We perceived every little thing as a potential threat and our family and friends all felt incredibly vulnerable. As a result, we’ve since installed a state-of-the-art security system and treat every phone call or unfamiliar visitor as a potential risk.

It really is unfortunate that we feel such precautions are necessary, but it is our new reality. Our own government has put our address on a public blacklist knowing full well that scammers, vigilantes, and mentally unbalanced individuals won’t hesitate to use that information to bring harm to us. The question I’d love to hear someone answer is a simple one:

How does terrorizing my family or turning them into crime victims make society any safer?