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Tampa man makes headlines with story of scam caller posing as Hillsborough police officer

Joey Rosati was fooled by a statement he never expected from a scammer: “Go to the sheriff’s office.”

The call came while he was at Costco, and he ended up minutes from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, his half-full shopping basket sitting in the aisle. A man claiming to be a deputy told Rosati to come to the station because he had failed to show up for jury duty.

“I think it's simple. Why would a con artist ever tell you to go to the sheriff?” Rosati said.

The answer: keeping him on the phone. Rosati spoke with the scammer for more than 20 minutes, and their true goal only became clear to him at the end of his trip, when a second caller told him he needed to take $9,000 to another location as payment for “fines.”

Rosati detailed his experience in a post on X that quickly went viral, reaching 10 million views. He said he received dozens of “heartbreaking” messages from others who had been scammed – some of whom lost thousands of dollars. Rosati believes more people need to hear these stories to understand that scammers are constantly improving their techniques.

Rosati, 32, a tech-savvy venture capitalist and small business owner, is familiar with common scam techniques. He knew not to give personal information or send money to a stranger over the phone. But he couldn't imagine that what the caller described as a “polite notice” about his failure to appear as a juror could be that. After all, he wasn't looking for money, just a quick visit with the sheriff.

“The questions I asked and the care and professionalism with which they answered them were completely believable,” Rosati said. “It's not like they're sitting there yelling at you. It's just the stern voice of an officer saying, 'Hey, you missed this, we can clean this up pretty quickly.'”

If Rosati still had any doubts, the scammer had plenty of detailed personal information about him. The man on the phone gave Rosati's full name, address, and the last four digits of his social security number. He also seemed to know that Rosati had recently moved.

“They must have had a database of my move date because they asked, 'Did you happen to move in the last few weeks? Because we show that this should have been April 29,'” Rosati said. “That was literally the week I moved.”

Related: Scammers pose as Tampa Bay sheriffs to threaten people over nude photos and sex videos

Bryan Oglesby, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of West Florida, said it is not uncommon for scammers to know personal details about their victims.

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For example, hackers can break into the databases of large companies and sell private customer data to scammers on the dark web, a part of the internet where users conduct anonymous and sometimes illegal transactions. In other cases, Oglesby said, scammers may rely on information their victims share on social media.

The call also displayed the sheriff's office's actual phone number, an increasingly common method used by scammers known as “spoofing.” When Rosati asked if he could hang up and call back — in part to make sure he was speaking to a real deputy — the man on the phone said he could and told Rosati to ask for him using his duty number.

“He was bluffing me, so I didn't hang up. I didn't call the sheriff,” Rosati said. He looked up the police number and name the caller had provided, and they were real.

However, when he was transferred to a second caller demanding that he pay the fines, Rosati immediately hung up and called the sheriff's office, who informed him that he was not the first person to call about this scam that day.

“Even if you do actually deal with a scammer, money will be involved at some point,” Rosati said. “You just have to be on your guard.”

Cindy Stuart, the Hillsborough County clerk and auditor whose office handles jury duty summons, said the only time you'll be fined for missing jury duty is if you show up in court – and even that's rare.

“Usually you're just put back on hold and called again,” Stuart said. “It's up to the judge's discretion whether to impose a fee or a fine.”

And if you were facing a fine, Stuart said, a deputy sheriff would never call you about it.

Cindy Stuart, pictured here in 2020, said sheriff's deputies were not calling people to pay fines for missed jury duty.
Cindy Stuart, pictured here in 2020, said sheriff's deputies were not calling people to pay fines for missed jury duty. [ WALLACE, DANIEL | Tampa Bay Times ]

“The sheriff’s office will never call you and tell you that you are being arrested or that you owe a fine,” she added.

Stuart said she received at least 10 calls or texts from friends and relatives who had been victims of jury fraud or knew someone who had been. Her office alerted Florida clerks and auditors of the scam in October, which led to a statewide alert.

In recent months, the U.S. District Court, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office have also warned of an increase in jury duty fraud cases.

Casey Minuto, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, wrote in an email that the office is “providing information to educate the public about these scams and how to protect themselves from them.”

“We take these threats very seriously,” she wrote.

According to George Burruss, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, the best thing to do during such phone calls is not to let fear overwhelm you, even if the caller claims to want to help.

“Scammers have realized that soft sales pitches and low pressure at the beginning can lead to a bigger profit later,” Burruss wrote in an email. “These scams have become more sophisticated, and that tends to bypass people's suspicions.”

For Rosati, the most important finding was how many people have lost money to scammers – even those who are familiar with common scams and grew up in the online age.

“I've learned that a lot more people get scammed this way, but a lot of people just don't say anything because they're so embarrassed,” he said.

“Once you feel like you are smarter than them, they will be better than you.”