A woman who lives on Stock Island, east of Key West, had just returned from a trip abroad when she got a disturbing call earlier this week. It was a man named "Mike" telling her that there was a warrant out for her arrest because she had missed jury duty. It seemed plausible enough. After all, she'd been gone — maybe she missed a bunch of mail.
But then Mike told her that she needed to pay a large fine to avoid arrest: $2,700 to be exact. And she needed to pay it, Mike said, by going to local drugstores and using the "red phone" to wire money. The woman went to one CVS and wired Mike money. Then she went to another CVS and sent more.
But she still owed, Mike told her. The woman visited another store, a market in downtown Key West. There, a clerk warned her something seemed off. But the woman insisted. She needed to pay Mike.
After that, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office got involved. Sure enough, Mike was a scammer — and the woman isn't the first South Florida resident to fall for the old wire-money-or-go-to-jail ploy.
"We get lots of reports of scams," Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Becky Herrin tells New Times. "People do fall for this stuff because these callers are very persuasive, and there's an element of urgency."
Often the victims are elderly, Herrin says, but in this case, the woman isn't. The scams are usually a variation on the same theme: Something urgent is happening — a threat of jail, property loss, or even that a loved one has been kidnapped. But Herrin hadn't heard the red-phone version — the demand that the victim use a drugstore phone to wire money.
"I Googled it," Herrin says. The red phones in drugstores really are used for money transfers.
Herrin says the scams are common in the Keys, but she dispels any suggestion that residents there were somehow more susceptible — or that maybe there was just something about the salty air that made Monroe County ripe for hucksters.
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"I think it happens everywhere," she says. "Probably we just have more time to talk about it."
On Monday, around the same time the woman was forking over the $2,700, another Stock Island woman received a similar call. This time, it wasn't Mike on the other end; it was "Detective Harris" from the "Monroe County Warrants Division." The woman was in contempt of court, the caller said. She would be arrested unless she paid $1,900, using the red phone at CVS.
The woman didn't go to CVS. She called the sheriff's office.