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Told they blew off jury duty, 2 Charlotte residents paid thousands to avoid jail

Two Charlotte residents lost thousands of dollars after being accused over the phone of blowing off federal jury service. They then paid big “fines” to avoid jail.
Two Charlotte residents lost thousands of dollars after being accused over the phone of blowing off federal jury service. They then paid big “fines” to avoid jail. Observer staff

A nationwide scam involving callers representing themselves as federal judges ordering residents to pay fines for missing jury duty has claimed two victims in Charlotte – big ones.

According to court officials, after being convinced that the calls were legitimate, the residents paid $8,000 and $9,000, respectively, to avoid arrest. One of the victims was elderly.

“They feel duped, and I feel bad for them,” said Stephen Baldwin, who is heading up the investigation for the U.S. Marshal’s Service in Charlotte. “I was thinking of what would happen if my grandma got a call. When you target these kinds of people, I got no time for you.”

Presiding U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney said the scammers are telling those targeted that by skipping jury duty, they face arrest and jail if they don’t immediately pay up using prepaid debit cards available at drug stores and other outlets. The victims may also be asked for their Social Security numbers, then told they can get refunds if they show up in court at a later date.

The scam has been around a while. A warning on the Mecklenburg County courts website describes callers posing as sheriff’s deputies making the same payment demands. It dates back to January 2015.

Most folks recognize the con. But not all. Baldwin said there have been victims across the Southeast, and that the Atlanta offices of the marshal’s service, the Secret Service and the FBI are leading the investigation.

In the meantime, Whitney wants residents to know that though skipping jury duty is no trivial matter, no federal or state judge will be calling to threaten them about it. Nor will a judge assess a fine of any kind over the phone.

Skipping jury duty does have its consequences. Mecklenburg County holds a quarterly hearing in which scofflaw jurors must explain their repeated absences to a judge. But the fines are more in the $50 to $100 range. The next “show cause” hearing takes place Friday at 2 p.m.

If you live in the Charlotte region and have questions about federal jury duty, call the U.S. clerk’s office at 704-350-7410. For accurate information about jury service at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, the number is 704-686-0195.

If you get a call from someone posing as an angry judge, call Baldwin at 704-350-8005.

And keep your money where it belongs.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

This 30-second PSA from the Washington Pattern Jury Instruction (WPI) in partnership with BJA Public Trust and Confidence Committee emphasizes the importance of jury duty describing it as a right and a "chance to have your voice heard."

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