What happens when a scammer pretending to be an Alaska State Trooper talks to an actual trooper?
Spoiler alert: The scammer loses, gets mad and hangs up. But not before he threatens to arrest Andrea Jacobson, an investigator in the financial crimes unit of the Alaska State Troopers.
Jacobson had gotten a report of the jury service scam circulating around Alaska and the United States, along with the scammer's phone number.
On June 13, she called the phone number and left a message. The scammer called back.
During the 25-minute phone call, recorded and provided to Alaska Dispatch News by State Troopers under a public records request, Jacobson pretended to be the intended victim of the scam.
The man, calling himself "Lt. Steven Harris," tried to convince her she would be arrested if she didn't immediately purchase thousands of dollars in "MoneyPak" cards, a type of prepaid debit card.
In the audio, the intended victim's name and address were edited out for privacy reasons.
The scheme centers on the premise that the victim had failed to appear for federal jury duty.
According to investigators, the con man impersonates a trooper and says the victim is being charged with failure to appear and contempt of the court — both of which come with hefty fines. But the victim can avoid arrest, the scammer says, if the victim purchases a MoneyPak card and takes it to a kiosk at the trooper station.
The kiosk doesn't exist, but the trooper office does. In the case of Jacobson, the fake trooper told the real one she could find the kiosk at 5700 E. Tudor Road in Anchorage, the real trooper headquarters.
"You do know where the state troopers office is located, ma'am, out here on Tudor?" the scammer said, not knowing his victim was perfectly familiar with that office.
In the audio, the con man, who claimed to be the head of the trooper "alleviation and validation unit," threw out legal mumbo-jumbo and the names of real people — in Jacobson's case, he referenced Alaska Supreme Court Justice Joel Bolger, but he demoted Bolger to a federal magistrate judge. The scammer also had the victim's address.
When pressed, he claimed to be the highest-ranking trooper in his unit, and at one point told the real trooper he would send the head of troopers, someone he said was named "Trooper Jenkins," to arrest her. (Col. Hans Brinke is the actual trooper director.)
When Jacobson asked to speak to the scammer's supervisor, he claimed to not have one.
"What is your rank again?" she asked.
"My name is Lt. Steven Harris," he said.
"You must have a captain, because I know lieutenants are under captains," she replied.
"I am the superior officer here," he said.
But Jacobson persisted. "Could I talk with the colonel of state troopers?"
"We don't have a colonel in the state troopers," he said, falsely. "We do have a commander."
"No, you have a colonel. I saw it in the newspaper," Jacobson insisted.
The scammer told Jacobson he'd stay on the phone while she got the money cards, claiming he needed to "keep the system updated." She had only two hours to complete the task, he said, while she sought extra time because she claimed to need to use the bus system.
With a MoneyPak, the scammer can get the value of the card by telling the victim to read the numbers on its back.
At the end of the call, when Jacobson refused his request, the con man said, "Apparently you want to be arrested," he said. "I'm filing a 'noncompliance' as we speak."
He gave her a list of personal items to bring to jail, and used the phrasing of police — instead of telling her to bring a white T-shirt, for instance, he told her to bring T-shirts that were "white in color."
Jacobson said, besides warning the public, troopers can't do a lot. The calls don't originate in the troopers' jurisdiction and they don't know who the scammer is.
"There are usually many (scammers) and some are 'assigned' a region," Jacobson wrote in an email.
Traced calls come back as "Voice over Internet Protocol," meaning they come through an internet connection instead of a phone line.
"It is easy to mask or spoof a number with the area code of any state you choose," Jacobson wrote in an email. Scammers tend to set up shop in a hotel or rented space temporarily before moving to a new location, Jacobson said.
Erin Authier, who lives in Anchorage, was one of the unfortunate ones. In July, she lost $250 after spending an entire morning on the phone with a scammer who said he was "Lt. Steve Arlow" from the troopers' office.
"He kept me on the phone the entire time in case I got pulled over on my way to station — wanted to keep me safe (hahahaha)," Authier wrote in an email.
Looking back, it all seems obvious, Authier said. But he was professional, articulate and seemed to know about how the court system works, she said.
It could have been worse — Authier purchased $2,000 in MoneyPak cards, but only read the scammer information from the back of one card before her suspicions took over.
The scammer tried to get at the rest of the money. He left her a message on her cellphone the same night "saying that we really needed to talk about what happened," Authier said. She never called back.
Jacobson expects many more people have been contacted by the scammers but didn't make any reports about it. The scam was ongoing as of late August, she said.
Tips for identifying and dealing with the jury duty scam
The scammers are targeting landlines, likely because they tend to reach older people, said Cynthia Franklin, assistant attorney general in the Alaska Department of Law's Consumer Protection Unit.
To gain trust, the scammer numbers appear to be local, but they are numbers they "spoofed" to mask an out-of-state call, Franklin said.
If there's a warrant out for your arrest, troopers aren't going to call in advance to warn you, Jacobson said. And they definitely won't give you a list of what to bring to jail.
Most importantly, troopers will never ask you for money, Jacobson said.
The request for MoneyPak cards, or other prepaid cards liked iTunes cards, is "really weird" and a red flag, Jacobson said.
The scammer can be intimidating, so if you think you're getting played, "You could just say, 'Oh somebody's at the door, let me call you right back,' " Jacobson said. Then, call troopers — but not the number from the scammer — to verify.
If you interact with a scammer, tell as many people as you can, Jacobson said.
"If you have been ripped off, don't worry about how that makes you look," Jacobson said. "You should use that to empower others."
If you do get scammed, contact the Alaska Consumer Protection Unit at 907-269-5100.