CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Several scams reported throughout the Lowcountry and South Carolina over the past year rely on different stories, but employ a similar tactic to get a would-be victim's money.
The scams involve callers impersonating employees of law enforcement or government agencies or local utilities who tell the victims immediate payment must be made to avoid one calamity or another.
The first scam involves callers claiming to work for a local clerk of court's office who say the victim missed scheduled jury duty and must immediately pay a fine to avoid an arrest warrant being issued.
The caller instructs the victim to purchase prepaid debit cards, then call back with the card number. At that point, the scam artist empties the money from the card.
In May, 2014, Charleston County Clerk of Court Julie Armstrong said at least three people had contacted her office after receiving the calls, but had not purchased the cards because they were suspicious the calls were not legitimate.
Armstrong said the Clerk of Court's Office only calls jurors who contacted them about their jury duty service. The office never solicits money, credit card numbers or personal identifiers over the phone, Armstrong said.
Others have reported receiving similar calls involving alleged missed grand jury service.
Armstrong said when in doubt, anyone receiving such a call should ask for the caller's phone number, name and title, then call the county's Clerk of Court office to verify the information.
Several law enforcement agencies received complaints about callers claiming to work for the Charleston County Sheriff's Office in which the caller pretended to be a warrant officer and said the victim would immediately be arrested unless they bought prepaid debit cards to cover fines.
"This type of scam has been around for a while, and it is becoming more and more prevalent in our area, especially with the advancement in technology," Charleston County Sheriff's Maj. Eric Watson said last summer.
Dorchester County Chief Deputy Sam Richardson said deputies had received reports of similar calls from people claiming to be Berkeley or Dorchester County warrant officers.
The amounts demanded to satisfy the non-existent fines ranged from around $350 to $500, Richardson said.
"Law enforcement will never make a call for payment over the phone to clear up an outstanding warrant or to pay a fine," Watson said. "A fine can only be paid through the courts, and a warrant can only be cleared by the defendant paying the fine through the court of jurisdiction or by the individual serving time in jail, or by having the matter handled by their lawyer."
In November, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and officials from SCE&G, Duke Energy, Santee Cooper and the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina warned people about a sophisticated phone scam targeting utility customers.
Customers throughout the state were reporting phone calls from people pretending to work for utility companies who claimed the victim was late on their utility bill or might need a new meter, and that their electric service would be turned off immediately unless a payment was made.
Again, the caller would tell the customer to buy a prepaid debit card and then call back with the card number.
"Utilities, including SCE&G, never ask customers to purchase payment cards for bill payment purposes," SCE&G President Keller Kissam said in a statement.
Mount Pleasant Waterworks issued a warning on Tuesday to its customers that scammers were pretending to be MPW employees. The callers demanded immediate payment of a bill over the telephone, according to MPW General Manager Clay Duffie.
Officials with Mount Pleasant Waterworks say the utility does not call customers to demand immediate payment and does not ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. The utility says anyone who receives such a call should avoid providing any personal information and hang up immediately.
Dorchester County deputies warned of a similar scam involving alleged back taxes. In this scam, callers pretended to be with the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C., and claimed the victim must immediately pay past-due taxes.
The Internal Revenue Service warned of this type of scam back in October of 2013. According to the agency's website, versions of the scam include callers using fake names and IRS badge numbers who may even be able to recite the last four digits of a victim's social security number. The scammers may use technology to "spoof" Caller ID, so that the number displayed appears to be a legitimate IRS phone number, the site states.
The IRS says anyone who knows or thinks they may owe back taxes should call the IRS at (800) 829-1040 to verify the amount owed. If you know you don't owe taxes or have reason to think you don't but you receive a call claiming you do, you should report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at (800) 366-4484.
The site also mentions official-looking emails that appear to come from the IRS demanding payment.
"The IRS encourages taxpayers to be vigilant against phone and email scams that use the IRS as a lure. The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels," the site states.
The common thread from scammers is that a dire consequence, such as arrest, will result if the victim doesn't pay immediately, apparently relying on the element of surprise and panic to coerce a victim to pay.
"If you ever doubt the legitimacy of a caller, hang up and immediately call your utility to verify, as well as your local law enforcement agency," Kissam said in a statement.
"The best way for people to protect themselves from these phone scams is to be aware they are happening and not give out any financial information over the phone," Duffie said in a statement.
For more information, Green Dot, a brand of prepaid debit card, lists the most common scams to watch for on its website: https://www.moneypak.com/protectyourmoney.aspx