After uptick in scam calls, LCSO urges awareness of those impersonating law enforcement

Cool, calm, collected coercion.

The description of a trap that new Tallahassee resident almost fell into when he picked up a phone call from a person who said he was an employee at the Leon County Sheriff’s Office.

The man, who asked for his name not to be published, said he never answers calls he does not recognize. But being new to the city, he decided to bend his rule for the incoming call from a 850 number— just in case it was related to his move.

Using a well-established scam tactic, con artists are posing as government officials to try and trick those who answer into giving them exorbitant amounts of money. But now with technological advances and artificial intelligence on the rise, the scams are becoming more sophisticated and harder to tease out from the truth.

“We see [scams] about every six months to a year,” said Angela Green, a spokesperson for the Leon County Sheriff’s Office. “It just depends on what season it is.”

Due to a recent uptick in reported calls, the sheriff’s office released an informative flyer on social media June 6 detailing the scheme and informing residents to beware of these calls.

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In the most recent wave of scams, callers start by asking the target if they have recently signed up for federal jury duty.

Knowing he hadn’t, and just recently served a local jury duty, Tallahassee’s new resident said he immediately felt something was off. The LCSO poser told him they have it documented that he missed his jury duty and now a warrant was posted for his arrest.

His heart raced as the con artist explained that if he hung up, it would immediately confirm the warrant, and he could be arrested the next time a police officer saw him out.

While he sensed it was a scam, he said the guy had him partially convinced.

The caller was clearly trained in remaining calm, and never once was flustered by the man’s questions, he said. During the call, the man started researching to verify the caller’s identity, and he said the scammer had his story straight.

The scammer’s voice even matched what he thought the person pictured on the website would sound like, he said.

He quickly ended the call when the scammer informed him that he would have to pay $16,500 through either Venmo or PayPal to clear the warrant.

“They almost had me there,” he said. “I feel like there are probably quite a few people out there that would be scared enough to where they would pay that kind of money.”

Scam calls aren't just in Tallahassee

Phone calls like these are not isolated to the Tallahassee area. In fact, scams like this are more commonly seen in south Florida, said Leon County Clerk of Courts Gwen Marshall Knight.

Officials in various counties across Florida, such as Gordon County and Miami-Dade County, have also posted information online to educate their residents about the potential of these scams.

Knight said it is important for residents to know this is not how missed jury duties are handled. A typical notice would come as a letter in the mail, she said.

“We would never call them,” she said.

In efforts to protect people from theft, she said the clerk’s office is working alongside LCSO to spread the word to Tallahassee residents to help them identify when they are receiving these calls.

LCSO has crime prevention specialists who attend weekly “lunch and learn” program at the county’s senior citizens outreach, Green said. They hold live, weekly discussions with detectives from the financial crime unit.

If a person has actually paid one of these callers, their case would be assigned to one of these detectives, Green said. Otherwise, they urge residents to immediately hang up and call the sheriff’s office if there are any questions about the legitimacy of the call.

Though these scams are frequent and not uncommon, Knight said she has noticed how sophisticated they are getting. There are cases where the scam numbers have duplicated official government numbers that appear on the caller identification, she said.

Scammers’ money collecting methods have also upgraded. Instead of simply asking for people’s credit cards, they now are asking for payment through things like Bitcoin or by purchasing fake gift cards, Knight said.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and fraudulent calls

And this could only be the beginning to more technologically advanced crime. Experts say artificial intelligence is going to increasingly be at the forefront of these scams and will further complicate investigating and stopping these calls.

“I anticipate it’s going to be an arms race,” Kevin Butler, a cybersecurity professor at the University of Florida, said. “The AI is going to get better, so our detection mechanisms are going to have to get better.”

There have been advanced cases the last few years in Arizona where extortion calls have feigned the voices of people’s loved ones to make victims believe the caller is holding them hostage, Butler said. The scammers then promise to release the person for a price.

AI-based schemes like this are making it increasingly harder to determine where these calls are generating from and how to stop them.

Butler and his UF colleagues are currently researching the properties of AI that make it persuasive to the human ear.

Findings point to signs that technology does not take into account the ways that people’s vocal cords and diaphragm generate sound, he said. The difference between human voice and synthetic voice generators can be detected with advanced technology and biometrics that researchers are developing.

But even with these groundbreaking detection methods, it is almost impossible to track these calls down, he said. It is not clear whether these calls are nationally or internationally based, and the rate of success for getting to the bottom of scams is very low.

How to know if a call is a scam or real

While the most concrete way to distinguish between fact and fraud is through biometric techniques, there are a few ways that people can keep an eye out for these scammer’s schemes, Butler said.

If you receive a call where someone is being held for ransom, Butler suggests creating a safe word or phrase that only you and your loved ones know to be able to determine if a case like this is real.

If a caller asks for immediate payment via anything like Venmo, Bitcoin, cryptocurrency or gift cards, this is a blatant sign pointing to a scam, he said. If you want to verify the call, Butler said to tell them you have poor connection and need to call them back. Anyone legitimate will be able to accept a call back, he said.

“I think right now the best thing to do is remain vigilant,” Butler said. “Ultimately, these scams are as old as time; it’s the technologies that change.”

Elena Barrera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @elenabarreraaa.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Scam calls in Tallahassee, state of Florida imitate law enforcement