A Palmer mom lost $3K to scammers. She wants to help you avoid falling for the scheme.

A woman with glasses and a blue shirt stands in front of a window looking to the left with a serious expression.
Samantha Norman, a victim of a Jury Duty scam, stands outside her home in Palmer on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. (Anisa Vietze/Alaska Public Media)

Samantha Norman, a nurse and mom in Palmer, never thought she would fall for a phone scam. 

She regularly told her elderly mom to get off the phone with scammers and hung up when she spotted them herself. 

But then she got a call on her cell phone on a sunny afternoon on June 6. The caller ID said Palmer Police Department.

“It was really clearly laid out to me as soon as I answered the phone,” she said. “He said his officer name, his badge number, that the Palmer Police Department had been trying to get a hold of me.”

She stayed on the phone for hours, confused and trying to cooperate. What she didn’t know at the time: The man calling her was not an officer, and she was being targeted by a “Jury Duty Scam.” It’s a nationwide scheme that law enforcement says has been around for about a decade but is becoming increasingly sophisticated. And, in Alaska, the scammers are swindling residents out of thousands of dollars each year.

Norman is one of them.

She said the June 6 caller — who said he was Officer Ray — told her  she had signed for a piece of certified mail in March, and by signing for it she had agreed to be a part of a jury for a murder trial. She didn’t remember this, but as a busy mom working multiple jobs, she didn’t want to dismiss it entirely.

“I do have to sign certified mail for the businesses that I run sometimes,” Norman said. “So I just said, ‘It’s entirely possible that I signed for something and never opened it.’”

Because Norman had missed jury duty, the caller said, she had two charges against her and a warrant. If she hung up the phone, officers would be dispatched to her house to arrest her. She was scared. 

“I did not want my daughter, who was here on her playdate, to have a bunch of police show up at my house,” she said. 

Several colorful children's drawings are pinned to a spiral staircase inside a home. A doorway and fridge with lots of pictures on it are in the background.
Samantha Norman’s house is adorned with her seven-year-old daughter’s art. When a scammer threatened to send police to her house, she wanted to protect her daughter. (Anisa Vietze/Alaska Public Media)

The caller was sympathetic, she said. He told her he had two kids himself, so he understood and would help her handle it. 

“He’s like, ‘I can tell you’re a really good mom,’” she recalled. “‘I’m going to be at the police station as soon as you get here. I’m going to be the person that does your fingerprints and your photographs, we’ll get you in and out of here in less than an hour.’”

He told Norman that she just needed to pay a bail bond of $3,000 so that she didn’t have to spend the night in jail. The bail bond had to be paid, not in person at the police station, but at a Coinstar machine at the grocery store. The caller told her this was because of lingering COVID protocols. He said it was just another one of those pandemic adjustments that, for bureaucratic reasons, hadn’t been reversed yet.

“It was all very confusing and overwhelming, but at the same time, in some ways, made sense,” Norman said.

She said $3,000 felt like a lot of money, but the caller told her she would get it back within a few days.

“Once I deposited the money, we got disconnected,” she said.

She called the number back, and it went to the Palmer Police Department.

“The lady on dispatch was like, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re the third person today that this has happened to.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ And she’s like, ‘It’s a scam,’” Norman said.

The whole call was made up — there was no piece of certified mail, warrant for her arrest or nice police officer with a southern accent. 

“And then I got hysterical,” Norman said, tearing up as she recounted the conversation. “I was like, ‘Ma’am, that’s my mortgage. Like, what do I do? I’m a single mom. Nobody else is gonna pay these bills. I’m living paycheck to paycheck. I don’t have savings. Like, what am I supposed to do?’”

Norman is not the only one who’s been scammed. There have been reports of virtually identical scams across the country, and across Alaska. Earlier this year, police in Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula both warned residents of scammers impersonating officers.

There is not much more local police can do, said Palmer Police Detective Sgt. Luke Szipszky. He said that’s because the scammers are likely calling from other states or overseas. 

“That’s why we want to get out as much education as possible to prevent them, because there’s not a whole lot we can do on the back end,” Szipszky said.

Szipszky said this scam has been going on in Palmer for about a decade, but it’s gotten more elaborate over time. Norman’s scammer gave her case numbers, transferred her to someone he said was a judge, had police radio chatter in the background and kept her on the phone for three hours. Scammers also now use caller ID spoofing to make it look like a call is coming from the police department’s real phone number, and when you try to call the scammer back it actually goes to the department. 

Szipszky said Alaskans must remember that a real police department would never call and demand money for any reason. 

“Nowhere in the state of Alaska will we call up and demand money in exchange for taking care of a warrant,” he said. “That’s not us.”

In a situation where something seems off, Szipszky urged residents to hang up the phone and  call the police department directly to confirm. 

“We will listen, we don’t mind, it’s not a bother,” he said.

He said the department has tried to educate people on the scams, posting about them on its Facebook page and working with local banks to put signs up warning people about common schemes. 

Norman wishes there was more the police could do.

“I’m not on Facebook, and I certainly don’t follow the Palmer Police Department,” she said. “I just feel like we could do better in educating people on what to listen for.”

She tried to get her money back. She submitted a police report and started a fraud case with her bank. But her bank told her they could not return the money. She also filled out a report with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

A woman's hand is holding a stack of papers pinned with a paper clip. In the background there are groceries on the table and a dishwasher.
Samantha Norman holds a stack of papers related to the scam. She has receipts from the Coinstar transaction, her FBI Internet Crime Complaint Victim Information, and notes that she took while on the phone with the scammer, including fake case numbers and charges. (Anisa Vietze/Alaska Public Media)

Eventually, Norman did end up getting her money back, but not from the scammer. Nearly two dozen people donated to an online fundraiser, and she was able to pay her mortgage on time. She said she was shocked.

“I am so grateful for the support of some people that I don’t even know, and many, many friends, near and far, that donated money to help me pay my bills,” she said.

Norman said she felt like the community really showed up for her in a time of need. It made her want to share her story of being scammed — even if it is a little embarrassing to admit — so that others in her community won’t have to go through the same thing. 

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