Lt. Frank Harold, badge number 1170, of the Pierce County Sheriff's Department has been busy.
He’s threatened to arrest little old ladies, forced people to pay fines they didn’t owe and scared the daylights out of honest citizens.
Frank Harold isn’t a bad cop. He’s not a cop at all. And he doesn’t work for the Sheriff’s Department or any other government agency.
Harold, or whatever his real name is, is a flim-flam man. And the only real job he has is to con innocent people out of their money.
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Judith Neilson of Spanaway was almost one of his victims. Last week she thought she was headed to jail.
“It was a very scary experience and had me almost in tears before I finally got through it all,” said Neilson, 75.
The fake lieutenant tried to bilk Neilson using what’s known as the jury scam.
The fraud isn’t new. The FBI’s website has notifications from field offices all over the country going back 10 years. Consumer’s Union says the scam dates to 2005.
“Washington residents are receiving scam attempts right now, but next month it could be residents in a different state,” said Supervisory Special Agent Ethan Via of the FBI’s white-collar crime squad.
Neilson’s ordeal began with a message she found on her answering machine.
“This is concerning a very important matter that has come across my desk,” Lt. Harold says in the message. He has a slight Southern accent.
Neilson, a retired nurse, has spent her life keeping her nose clean, paying her taxes, and — if asked — would serve on a jury.
The message sounded official and the caller knew Neilson’s name. When Neilson called the number back, the man who answered the phone identified it as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
He then transferred her to “Lt. Harold.”
“He said there was a warrant for my arrest resulting from failing to appear for jury duty,” Neilson said.
Harold was slick and practiced. He named Pierce Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson, case numbers, court dates. Neilson was soon overwhelmed with information.
“It was completely convincing,” she said.
And then the threat came.
“He went on to say that I would need to appear in court to have this exonerated but needed to pay the fines, which were $1,000 each for each citation, to the tune of $3,000,” Neilson said.
Harold told her the money would be returned after she appeared before the judge.
He was specific with the money arrangements. She would have to buy three $1,000 prepaid debit cards at a Fred Meyer store. And she was not to tell anyone, including Fred Meyer employees, that this was for a warrant.
“This gentleman was very good at convincing me this was legit,” Neilson said.
But she was starting to get suspicious.
Harold gave Neilson one last instruction that struck her as odd.
“He wanted me to call him (on her cellphone) and stay on the line when I went to get the cash cards,” she said.
Instead, Neilson hung up and called the real Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and Cuthbertson’s office.
Both told her she was being scammed.
“(A clerk) looked up my name and said, ‘We’ve never called you for jury duty.’”
Ed Troyer is a real detective who works for the real Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. He said the Sheriff’s Department has had a half dozen reports of jury scams in the past week.
But he thinks there could be many more.
“Some of the people, when they figure out they have been scammed, are embarrassed to call (the authorities),” Troyer said.
Con artists use so-called burner phones — prepaid cell phones that can’t be traced back to their owners — to make the calls.
Troyer is not surprised at the elaborate ruses the con artists use to snare their victims.
“These are professionals,” he said. “Professional at being thieves.”
Along with the jury scams, there are lottery scams (“You won the lottery just pay us the taxes first”), the grandma scam (“This is your grandson and I’m in trouble. Send money”) and the IRS scam (“The IRS has filed a lawsuit against you”) among others.
The FBI said con artists will impersonate their agents, federal marshals, IRS agents and anybody else they think will scare people into giving up their money.
The greasy con men are hard to grab, but sometimes they do get busted.
In 2015, dozens of corrections officers and inmates at a Georgia prison were charged with crimes after they used smuggled cellphones to shake down civilians in a jury duty scam.
Some victims were in Pierce County, Troyer said.
Fred Meyer, the store where Harold was directing his victims, is well aware of the problem.
“We’ve trained our people. We hung up signs for a while. I’ve talked to the Attorney General’s office about this,” said Melinda Merrill, a spokeswoman for Fred Meyer and QFC stores.
Workers at the Fred Meyer store on Mountain Highway near Neilson’s house expressed alarm this week when a reporter started asking questions about the prepaid debit cards.
“Our service reps will ask a lot of questions and try to talk these people out of what they are doing,” Merrill said. “They know that’s a red flag when the person is on the phone while they’re buying it.”
Merrill said some victims are so sure the scam is real they can’t be convinced otherwise.
Ayn Dietrich-Williams, the Seattle FBI’s media coordinator, speculates the con men want the victim to stay on the phone so that they don’t have an opportunity to think over the situation.
“If the person hangs up, he/she may have space to reconsider and realize the call could be a scam,” Dietrich-Williams said.
Neilson stays up on the news and knows about many of the current scams, but hadn’t heard of the jury scam.
“I’m pretty savvy,” she said. “But this completely took us off guard. Seniors are the ones being taken.”
Lt. Harold didn’t give up easily. He tried calling Neilson one more time Thursday, but a male friend answered the phone for her. Harold hung up when he heard the man answer.
“It was scary, it really was,” Neilson said. “The guy was extremely convincing.”
Harold persuaded at least one person in Pierce County that he was real.
After trying and failing to scam Neilson, he called a new victim Friday.
This time, he was Lt. Cliff Harold of the Sheriff’s Department. His pitch was almost identical to the one he gave Neilson.
The victim, who lost $2,500 to Harold, reported the crime to the Sheriff’s Department. A deputy took a report.
“(The victim) told me that the suspect would not hang up with her, explaining that he needed to be on the phone in case she got stopped by the police so he could vouch for her so she wouldn't be arrested,” the deputy reported.
When the deputy called the con man’s number, he got this message: “You’ve reached the warrant division. Sorry we can’t take your call. Leave a message and a deputy will get back to you as soon as possible. If this is an emergency, hang up and call 911.”
Later, the number was no longer in service.
If the crook or crooks who play the part of “Lt. Harold” have any quality beyond shamelessness, it’s laziness. They don’t bother to change their name as they work different parts of the country.
Geralyn Nicols of Las Vegas told KSNV-TV she was scammed out of $2,500 by a Lt. Harold. This time he was with the Clark County Sheriff's Department. He used the same missed jury duty line on her.
“He was matter of fact,” Nichols told the television station. “He was concise. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Internet searches show Lt. Harold has been working the scam in Texas and Colorado, as well.
In Pierce County, while there is a real warrant division at the Sheriff’s Department, it sticks to the big fish.
“We don’t go after people who don’t show up for jury duty,” Troyer said. “Our warrant division goes after hard-core criminals, people who need to be taken off the street.”
According to Troyer, you’re now on that list, Lt. Harold.
Jury scam tips
Things to remember if you think you’re being targeted by a scam:
▪ Governments generally initiate communication with citizens via mail or in person. Unless you already have an established relationship with a government agency or employee, be suspicious of anyone who reaches you unrequested by phone.
▪ If anyone asks for money over the phone and you didn’t initiate the call, just hang up.
▪ Courts do not call citizens about jury duty. Jury duty notifications come via mail.
▪ Some scammers want to get money from you, others want personal information to steal your identity. Be suspicious of anyone who asks for a Social Security number, credit card numbers or any other sensitive information.
▪ Report jury scams to the police and court officials.
▪ Discuss scams with family members, especially older people.