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Officials: Government agencies will never ask people to pay fines using gift cards
A 33-year-old woman provided $18,000 to scam artists pretending to be an Allegheny County sheriff’s deputy and an FBI agent.
Officials are warning residents that government agencies will never ask for gift cards to pay off a fine or post bond.
The suspects, who have not yet been identified, spoofed the sheriff’s office number on caller ID to make the scam seem more convincing, said Tony Griffith, spokesman for Allegheny County Sheriff Kevin Kraus.
Investigators said the victim was convinced that she had to pay off fines and fees by purchasing gift cards from Giant Eagle, Rite Aid and other merchants, and then reading the numbers over the phone to the phony law-enforcement officers.
“The sheriff’s office cannot stress enough that this is not how we conduct business involving warrants,” Griffith said. “We never ask for payment in the form of gift cards for anything involving the judicial system or any other aspect of our office.”
Griffith said the scam began Jan. 20 when the victim received a call from “Lieutenant Mullen.” The victim’s caller ID displayed “(412) 350-4700,” which is the main number for the county sheriff’s office.
“Mullen” told the victim that she had been mailed a subpeona to appear in court and had not responded. Due to the woman’s “failure” to appear in court, “Mullen” said, the victim faced a variety of charges, including contempt of court, and a warrant had been issued for her arrest.
“Mullen” told the victim she had 72 hours to post bond.
A short time later, according to Griffith, the victim received another call from “Captain Stephens,” who said “Mullen” had left for the day, and that the victim needed to post $8,000 for bail using gift cards.
The victim purchased the gift cards and provided the numbers over the phone to “Captain Stephens,” Griffith said.
The victim then received another phone call from someone claiming to be “James Robertson” in the Buffalo, N.Y., FBI office, Griffith said. “Robertson” said that because the supposed “charges” were federal in nature, the victim would need to “post” an additional $10,000 in “federal bond,” this time using Apple Pay.
“Robertson” told the victim the money would be returned to her following a court hearing.
The victim told investigators that both “Mullen” and “Stephens” sounded as if they had Southern accents, but “Robertson” did not, Griffith said.
Telephone scams involving gift cards are becoming more common, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
During the first nine months of 2021, the FTC said, more than 40,000 U.S. residents reported being the victim of gift card scams that totalled $148 million in theft.
Google Play, Apple, eBay, Walmart and Target cards are the most popular ones with scammers, according to the FTC.
Most of the scams start with a phone call from someone impersonating a branch of the government, the FTC said, who threatens to have the caller arrested if they refuse to pay fees or post bonds using gift cards.
The scam artists also ask victims to provide the gift card numbers over the phone, the FTC said.
The government and legitimate businesses will never call you demanding payment with a gift card, according to the FTC.
According to the FTC, gift card scams should be reported to the company that issued the card, local police and the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
Originally published January 25, 2022.