Flagler College jury scam: when technology is used for evil

Pictured above is the St. Augustine Police Department. The first victim reported her account of the jury scam in the station’s interview room.

By Katherine Hamilton | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Technology has become a pillar of modern society and has made most tasks quick and simple with the touch of a button. It has also made people more susceptible to cyber-attacks and phone scams.

Several Flagler College students received phone calls in August and September 2017, from a man who referred to himself as Deputy Philips telling them that they missed jury duty, according to the St. Augustine Police Department report. The man was a scammer who was impersonating an officer to take money from students.

All the victims had re-registered to vote in St. Augustine the previous year for the presidential election leading the police department to believe the scammer retained personal information from the forms.

“It really freaked me out that this person knew I had changed my registration for voting. That made me really uncomfortable,” said Eileen O’Connell, one of the victims of the jury scam.

O’Connell said she received several phone calls, voicemails, and texts from the man.

Immediately, she called her parents in a state of panic. She had been called for jury duty before, a week after she turned 18, but she said this time seemed different.

Over the phone, the alleged deputy assured her he was “trying to get her out of this.” O’Connell thought his speech was very casual for a police officer.

“I was like okay this is definitely not a thing. First off, a police officer would not text me,” O’Connell said. “Second, they would not be this informal.”

She became suspicious and checked the clerk of courts website. Right on the website, there was a message warning people of a jury scam going around targeting college students.

Later that night, the head of Flagler Security came to a Student Government Association meeting to tell the students that an email was going to be sent out about the jury scam.

At that point, O’Connell knew she had to contact the police. Once she did, the police department sent an officer to talk to her and take her report outside the Ringhaver Student Center.

“For me it was a little weird because I’ve never contacted the police for something—just in general really,” O’Connell said.

She said it makes sense that scammers would target college-age students because they have their whole lives ahead of them and would be afraid of getting into any kind of legal trouble.

Lauren Kerness, another victim of the scam, was scared that missing jury duty would jeopardize her future.

“He told me that for a small fine he could make it go away,” Kerness said. “I was crying hysterically. I am a rule follower.”

On one of the phone calls, he told Kerness that he could reduce the charges if she paid $500.

She noted that she is actually excited at the prospect of being called for jury duty one day and that she was more upset about missing it. She thinks the scammer played off her fears of being in trouble in an attempt to more easily procure money.

He continued to contact her and eventually threatened her by telling her there was a warrant for her arrest.

That’s when she also checked the clerk of courts website and saw the message about the jury scam going around.

Officer Gary Johnson, one of the two officers who help to bolster security at Flagler College, handled a great majority of the jury scam case.

For him, the jury scam was one of the first times he has seen college students being the victim of a scam. Usually the elderly and minority populations are the most vulnerable.

He said he wants people to be conscious of proper law enforcement protocol so that they will know the difference between real-life and fraudulent behavior.

“Be aware that if someone calls you or tries to contact you referencing jury duty that [jury summons] are usually almost always done using certified mail,” Johnson said.

He further warned that anytime someone is trying to convince another person to send money through cash cards or other suspicious means, they are most likely running a scam.

If any type of scam or emergency happens, Johnson advises people to use technology to empower themselves, to find out information and to call law enforcement.

“Once you report it, I can get that information out there, and then its knowledge for everyone else,” Johnson said.

He knows that many college students and adults have never had to interact with law enforcement before, but he said not to be afraid.

“We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to help. That’s my job—to provide safety and security,” Johnson said. “I have a vested interest in each and every one of you. I see you as the future.”

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