Scammers posing as Midlands cops try to collect bogus fines from victim in lieu of jail time

When Jessica Lathren noticed she had a voicemail from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, she promptly returned the call, not suspecting that she’d been targeted in an unusually elaborate scam.

On Wednesday, scammers pretending to be from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department told Lathren that two federal citations had been issued against her — one for failure to appear for a grand jury summons and another for contempt of court. Each citation, they said, carried a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail or a $2,000 fine that Lathren could avoid if she delivered $3,493 in “federal vouchers” to a kiosk in the lobby of the sheriff’s department, located at 5623 Two Notch Road.

“It was a wild 35 minutes of my life,” Lathren said of the call. “They said nothing about money for, like, the first 10 minutes of the call, which was filled with jargon like, ‘this is a federal offense, these are your citation numbers, these are your charges and this is what happens if you fail to appear.’ They get you completely stressed that you’ve done something wrong that you didn’t even know you did.

“It was just completely disorienting.”

From the initial voicemail, scammers provided Lathren with (803) 881-2789 as their call-back number. The number is answered by a machine recording that says, “You have reached the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. If this an emergency, please hang up and dial 911.” The recording goes on to give the caller several options to select from in order to be directed to various departments, including the warrants and citations division, which Lathren was instructed to contact.

Upon calling the number and selecting option four, Lathren said she spoke with a man posing as a deputy sheriff, who after asking for Lathren’s name, advised her of two federal citations pending against her.

The man asked whether Lathren had received a grand jury summons that had purportedly been delivered to her home address on July 31. Of course, Lathren had not.

After asking Lathren to write down a series of bogus citation numbers, the man passed the phone to his supposed boss, “Captain Carl Carpenter,” a fake name, who Lathren said became very aggressive, in line with the good cop, bad cop tactic.

Carpenter informed Lathren she could circumvent jail time by taking $3,493 — $1,996 for failure to appear and $1,497 for contempt of court — in cash to the nearest Kroger or Dollar General and purchasing a “federal voucher called Green Dot MoneyPak.”

It was at this point Lathren said she suspected something “fishy.”

“It was crazy, and I’m gonna be 100% honest, at one point, I’m like, this doesn’t sound quite right,” Lathren said. ”But then they just leaned into that bad cop part of the script, and it just derailed me.”

Green Dot MoneyPak is a prepaid debit card that allow users to electronically send money to others using a number found on the back of the card. The sent funds could either be applied to another prepaid card or bank debit card.

Scammers, as in Lathren’s case, instruct victims to purchase the MoneyPak card in a specified amount. Once the victim has purchased the card and loaded it with cash, the fraudsters ask for the card’s serial number, which the victim has to scratch off to reveal.

Once the scammer has the card’s serial number, they are able to transfer funds to a debit card, and the victim has immediately lost their money.

To make the scam appear more credible, the fraudsters instructed Lathren to deliver the “vouchers” to the lobby of the sheriff’s office.

But Richland County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Deputy Veronica Hill said collecting money from citations is not a function of the sheriff, but of the courts.

Moreover, sheriff’s deputies don’t have jurisdiction to enforce federal citations, which essentially are tickets for small infractions committed on federal property and issued by uniformed federal police officers, such as the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs police.

Hill said while she hadn’t heard of the scam specific to the one experienced by Lathren, there are many others that are very similar in nature.

“It happens with the jail, where they’ll call and say they have the information of your loved ones and they’ll say, ‘So and so has been arrested, you need to post this much in bail, and you can bring the cash to this location,’” Hill said. “Scammers get more creative all the time, unfortunately.”

Thankfully for Lathren, she eventually caught on to the ploy and never went to purchase those “federal vouchers.” But she fears that, perhaps, the next person won’t detect the scam, potentially resulting in the loss of thousands of dollars.

“Thank God I have my faculties about me,” Lathren said. “But you know, some people may not have realized that (the call) was getting fishy and, while feeling pressured, might have given in.”

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