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  • Writer's pictureValerie Brooke, MD

Scam 101

The phone call couldn’t have come at a worse time.  It was the day before we left for our move to Alaska and the movers were shuffling around the house, finishing up packing the few things they didn’t complete the day before, and loading boxes onto the massive truck that blocked our driveway.  Sleep hadn’t been great as the cats were disturbed, knowing that something monumental was soon to happen.

 

The incoming phone call was one I didn’t recognize, 775-328-3001, and was marked as Public Service, with the 775-area code indicated it was coming from instate.  I put it to voicemail, too engrossed with assisting the movers with, “Yes, this,” and “No, that’s staying,” which was more like charades as the workers were Hispanic with little English understanding.  When I had a moment I checked my voicemail.

 

“This is Sargent Randy Whitmore from the Marshall County Sheriff’s department, looking for Valerie Brooke to discuss a document.  Please return my call as soon as possible.  My direct line is 775-600-1274,” said the message, slightly obscured from talking in the background from the busy sheriff’s office.  

 

I had to listen to the message several times to understand the last digits of his direct line but was able to scratch it down on the long to-do list on the counter of what to get done before our move, most of the line items already crossed out.  I tried to call the direct number, but for some reason it didn’t go through.  I googled Marshall County Sheriff’s department only to find out it was in another state.  Huh, I thought, going to google search and putting in the number that had first called my phone.  I landed on the website for the Washoe County Sheriff’s department, recognizing my error of hearing Marshall instead of Washoe.  Sargent Whitmore talked so fast it was difficult to decipher some of his message.

 

I called the Washoe County Sherriff’s department, thinking maybe I could get to the Sargent’s desk that way.  I got a long list of options to choose from without an option to talk to an operator, so I hung up.  I started wondering if maybe Ronando ran a stop sign while driving my car, and my irritation increased as this was taking up too much time, of which I had very little to spare.  We were leaving for Alaska in less than 24 hours and still had an entire house to clean. 

 

I tried the Sargent’s direct line again, getting through this time, and left a message after hearing his voicemail.  Sighing and looking up at Ronando, who had just come into the kitchen, I turned to the next task on the to-do-before-moving list. 

 

“What’s going on?” he asked as he could sense my growing frustration. 

 

“Oh, a Sargent from the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department left me a message about a document or something, and I’m trying to call back,” I replied.

 

Several minutes later Sargent Whitmore returned my call.  He informs me I was supposed to show up to court on March 15th, to testify in a case, and that my failure to appear has resulted in a civil violation.  Being involved in a court case is not unreasonable as most physicians will get sued during their career, or at least be involved in a case where there was a death or a negative outcome.  If a physician’s name is in the patient’s record, they get added to the long list of providers to sue.  I started wondering why my previous employer didn’t contact me to advise me of this case as their legal department usually handles everything. 

 

I turned my focus back to Sargent Whitmore and discover that I apparently signed a subpoena on February 15th, which had been delivered to my home at 2515 Baton Drive at 1:47 pm, by two uniformed officers. 

 

“I don’t think I was even in town then,” I responded, my pulse quickening as I grabbed the calendar.  Now Ronando is next to me with questions in his eyes. 

 

“Looks like I was in town, but I didn’t sign anything,” I told the Sargent. 

 

“Was there anyone else there at home that would have signed for you?” He asked.

 

“No, my husband was working,” I responded, and I’m trying to imagine if any of my neighbors would have signed for me.

 

“Well, since we have a subpoena here signed by you and you did not show up to the trial on March 15th, Judge so-and-so has given you two citations, one for failure to appear and another for contempt of court,” he tells me, adding, “Do you have a pen?  You need to write this down.”

 

I start scribbling down everything Sargent Whitmore tells me.  My first violation is FTACV-4389, Failure to Appear Civil Violation.  My second is COCCV-6415, Contempt of Court Civil Violation.  He advises me our phone call is being monitored by the NCIC, the National Crime Investigative Center.  I am under a gag/suppression order until this gets cleared up.  If I lose connection to his call, I am not to call him back, but to wait for him to call me back.  After everything he tells me he asks if I understand.  I write down everything he tells me and then inform him I did not sign a subpoena.  He tells me that this can all be cleared up by coming down to the Sheriff’s office for a signature comparison process.

 

“Great,” I respond, “I need to get this cleared up right now as I’m moving to Alaska tomorrow,” relieved this has happened today, and not during the drive to Alaska, which would be impossible to manage. 

 

Sargent Whitmore again tells me I need to stay on the phone in case I get pulled over by a police officer on the way to the Sheriff’s office, so he can explain the situation, otherwise I could get arrested, a mug shot would be taken, and I could end up in jail with a criminal record. 

 

“Ok, I’m heading to your office, what’s the address?” I ask.

 

Sargent Whitmore gives me the address, then tells me I need to first go to a local Bond Office, as the judge has set bond for my two civil violations, $4500 for FTACV-4389 and $4500 for COCCV-6415.  I’ll go to the Bond Office with a certified check made out to the Department of the Treasury, then go to the Sheriff’s office for the signature verification process.  As soon as the signature process is completed, my check will be released back to me. 

 

My husband is following me around, trying to get my attention, and I’m pushing him away, so focused on not missing one word of Sargent Whitmore.  I tell the Sargent that my bank is not local so I cannot get a certified check.  He then tells me he will transfer me to his Captain, who can explain other options for the bond payment.  A few minutes later I get a call from the same Washoe County Sheriff’s Department, and the Sargent tells me to answer it.

 

Now I’m talking to a Captain Stephen Kelly, who asks me to repeat everything I understand up to that point.  He reminds me I must remain on the phone until I get to the sheriff’s office, and that I cannot talk to anyone else about this, including my husband, due to the gag/suppression order. 

 

“I understand that I cannot talk to anyone about the court case, but I can’t talk to anyone about my civil violations?” I ask him.

 

“That is correct, so I need you to go to a secure place in your home,” Captain Kelly replies. 

 

I move around the house looking for a quiet place, of which there isn’t one as there are movers everywhere. 

 

I locked myself in my bathroom while we start discussing how I can get the $9000 bond, given my bank situation.  I tell him if he gives me a routing number and account number, I can wire the money to the Department of the Treasury.  He asks if I can do Zelle or some other e-money process, which is not an option with my bank.  Then he asks if I have any cash at home, which I answer yes, but not enough. 

 

“How much do you have?” he asks. 

 

I go to our safe and start counting out money.  Now my hands are shaking, and I can’t think straight at all.  I tell him how much after counting several times, and he says he will talk to the judge and see if he can get the bond amount decreased, but that I should come down to the sheriff’s department right away.

 

I head out to the kitchen to grab the keys, fear in my eyes, cash in my hands, and Ronando stops me.  We have a short battle of wills as he tells me “Hang up, Valerie, it’s a scam.”

 

I tell the Captain that my husband does not believe this is legit, to which the Captain replies “Bring your husband with you.”

 

I am still headed out the door until Ronando tells me he’s on the phone with the real Sheriff’s department, that Captain Kelly hasn’t worked there for over ten years, and for me to hang up, NOW.

 

I finally come out of my fear induced trance, look at my cell phone as if it is from outer space, and calmly say to the Captain, “Well, I guess this is a scam,” and hang up.

 

The rush of cortisol floods my system, a massive dam breaking, my heart racing.  After Ronando explains to me who he was talking to at the Sheriff’s department, how the criminals used the Sheriff’s phone number and the name of someone who used to work there, relief slowly floods my body.  This was not real, though my body certainly thought so.   

 

I am not in trouble.  I am not guilty any civil violations.  I do not need to post bond.  I do not need to go to the Sheriff’s office.  I will not get arrested.  My medical license is not in jeopardy. 

 

As Ronando and I talk and process about what happened, all while the movers are going in and out of our house with boxes, my relief was quickly replaced by an incredible amount of shame.  I felt violated.  Dirty, like I needed to take a shower.  I was fearful these criminals knew where I live.  I was ashamed that I fell for their heinous scam.  How could I let this happen? 

 

Looking back, it’s so obvious from the very beginning that this was a scam. It has all the components: evoking a visceral response, a sense of urgency, and evoking authority with a risk of arrest. 

 

My husband knew it right off, and even said that the original message left by “Sargent” Whitmore, sounded like the call came from a prison yard. 

 

The fact that I was so trusting was evidence of my goodness, Ronando said in his effort to console me.  I want to believe in the best of human nature and am shocked by the capacity for humans to be so abhorrent.  Wikipedia’s definition of scam hits the nail on the head: “A scam, or a confidence trick, is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their trust.  Confidence tricks exploit victims using a combination of the victim’s credulity, naivete, compassion…”  Check.  Check.  Check. Yup, that’ me.  

 

Looking back, I can see how I fell for the attempted scam.  The number was from the actual Sheriff’s office; apparently the criminals know how to splice into the line.  All the legal and lawful mumbo jumbo was unrecognizable to me, just as a discussion about a complicated medical procedure or disease process would overwhelm someone not familiar with medical jargon. The Sargent and Captain were so polite all the red flags just flew right by me.  And once my fear was activated, my logical thinking cortex was turned off.  Thankfully my husband was there to pull me back from the edge.  How many others are not so lucky?  How many innocent victims have lost their life savings?

 

Ronando posted this event on the Reno Sub Reddit, and sure enough, there were others who fell victim to the same scam.  One woman lost $20,000 and was so ashamed. She was educated like me and fell into the same trap.  My-step mother told me of a widow in her town who fell for a similar scheme and lost $35,000.  I’ve told everyone I can about this, eating my shame, as I do not want this to happen to anyone else.  It was a tremendous learning lesson.  I was not harmed physically, just emotionally, which will heal over time.  I did not lose any money, just a tinge of self-respect, but I’m working on self-compassion.  I’ll get there, just as I will get to my new home in Alaska.

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