"Scamdemic" is a word I created to describe the reason why I am trembling while I pen this column.
I am writing to warn readers of a danger in our midst. I wish I were kidding.
I spoke with someone at the courthouse, in Cape May County, who reported that she was scammed three times and got how awful it is.
I have always treasured the peacefulness here when Labor Day passes. The crowds head to livelier territories, and we are left with beauty, peaceful repasts and, frankly, a phone scam.
At 12:05 p.m. Sept. 11, I was editing a column on fall in the marshlands when my phone rang. The male voice spoke so fast that I had to yell to get him to slow down. He slurred his words and spoke swiftly.
“This is Sgt. David Jenkins, from the Sheriff's Office at the Cape May County Courthouse, informing you that you need to comply with a civil process. I have a citation for FTA.”
"What is that?” He sounded legitimate, and I felt frightened. I grabbed paper and pencil and took notes.
“Failure to appear, citation 221-CV-7156.” He reeled off words to the effect that I am being held I contempt of court, could serve 30 days incarceration, or pay a fine. He continued that, once I show up at the courthouse, he will shepherd me but is logging me into the National Criminal Investigator System. He invited me to “maintain an open line of communication with Sgt. Jenkins.”
“Do I need an attorney?” I was clueless and felt terrified. My fingers were still quivering, even an hour after the event, as I wrote this piece.
“No, you will meet with my assistant, Ms. Shepherd. Bring an insecurity bond to the office to pay the fine. The insecurity bonds consist of two bonds. Each is to be valued at $1,500, but these will be returned when you go to the judge."
I told the caller that I needed to see clients and wanted to wait until next week to respond, knowing that I wanted to check facts and ask the police their take on this interchange, unlike others in my lifetime.
“You need to bring two forms of ID, a driver license and one other," the sergeant said.
“I have a social security card," I replied.
“No, that will not do, but a credit card is acceptable, and I will need a photo ID, as well.”
“I am seeing clients today and meeting deadlines, but Monday is more workable.”
"No, today." Panicking, I decided to walk to our next building, where my husband, John, was applying his graduate work in mathematics to our 2019 taxes. In his role as vice president, at The National Library of Medicine, he received clearance for honesty and leadership ability. He is stellar in odd situations, and this was one of the oddest moments in my not-too-short lifetime.
Was there really a man yelling at me on the phone, pushing me to pay $3,000 for not responding to mail I never received? Was he really a sergeant in our local police force? What had I done to justify being listed on the list of the National Criminal Investigation System?
Sitting at his desk, John listened as I told him about this voice. “Hang up.” John mouthed words with no sound. “Just hang up. This is a scam.” Honest brown eyes made contact, bringing my common sense out of hiding.
I hung up and immediately called the authorities, in Cape May County Courthouse. The friendly and professional voice that answered responded that, yes, it was a scam, and there had been other calls.
What is there to learn from this attempt to steal at least my funds, but perhaps also my identity?
I see three takeaways for all of us:
1. Keep your wits about you and consult with those you trust when in doubt. When in doubt, just hang up, as I did. Do not take immediate action or provide credit cards or money.
2. Check out threats with our stellar local police for the real story
3. Keep in mind that neither intelligence, nor good looks, nor the wisdom of a well-lived life can protect us from criminals. They are as near as our cell phones. They can be reported to the Federal Trade Commission, at 1 (877) 382-4357.
To consider: Do you ever find yourself buying into pitches that might be dishonest? What do you do to confirm your suspicions? What might you learn to protect yourself better next time?
To explore: Common Scams and Frauds, at www.usa.gov.
ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.