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Saudino: Inmate jury duty phone scammers had $300,000 bank accounts

Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino
Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino Photo Credit: COURTESY: Bergen County Sheriff

UPDATE: A nationwide jury duty phone scam run by a Georgia corrections officer and prison inmate brought some thieves as much as $300,000 each — and possibly was assisted by higher ups in the system, Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino said today.

“Many more arrests are expected” in connection with the scam, said Saudino, who was joined at a news conference on the steps of the county courthouse in Hackensack by his undersheriffs, Inspector Michael Bradley and county Prosecutor John L. Molinelli, among others.

Officials at Autry State Prison, in the southern Georgia town of Pelham, seized as many as 450 cell phones — costing $800 to $1,200 each — during a search stemming from Saudino’s investigation. Inmates there are prohibited from having cell phones or other communications devices, the sheriff said.

“Someone had to bring the phones into the prison,” Bradley told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

What’s more, the sheriff’s investigators discovered that some inmates in the state-run facility had as much as to $200,000 to $300,000 in their commissary accounts, thanks to the thievery.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the accounts were permitted to hold such huge amounts, Saudino said, adding that just about all of the funds came through credit card transfers from the victims.

“The investigation is going to open up things that will surprise us at the end of the day,” he added.

  • CVP BROKE THE STORY YESTERDAY: An interstate manhunt for phone scammers who are calling citizens in Bergen County and 11 other states claiming they must pay a fine or be arrested for missing jury duty has led to the arrests of a Georgia corrections officer and a prison inmate, Sheriff Michael Saudino announced this morning. READ MORE ….

The sheriff’s office began investigating after receiving several complaints from Bergen County residents.

The callers — claiming to be with his office — accuse residents of missing jury duty, saying there’s a warrant for their arrest. They then offer the targeted victims a chance to pay a fine and avoid arrest by providing a credit card number and/or prepaid debit card to pay a fine.

The scammers used throwaway cellphones with 201 area codes to make it look like they were in the area and often referred to themselves as “major” — a rank that doesn’t exist in Bergen County, Saudino said.

They read from scripts, keeping victims on the phone as long as possible, he said.

Corrections officers, including Carter, would “run” to another accomplice “as soon as there was verification on the funds availability” and take as much money from the account as they could, the sheriff said.

One man in Hackensack had $1,000 withdrawn from his account after authorizing payment of a “fine” to cover his supposed failure to answer a summons from jury duty, he said.

The scam spread to 11 states, Saudino said, adding that new charges from various jurisdictions were still being filed.

The sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), along with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and Hackensack Police Department, quickly identified two suspects.

Georgia State Correctional Officer Clarinda Carter waived extradition and was brought to the Bergen County Jail on Friday. The inmate, Covian Camp, is currently serving a 30-year sentence for cocaine possession and distribution, but will be extradited here as quickly as possible, the sheriff said.

Both are charged with two counts of theft by extortion and two counts of impersonating a law enforcement officer.

Both met at a different prison before rekindling their acquaintance at Autry, the sheriff said.

“This was a most difficult case,” Saudino said during today’s news conference. “It was not easy to investigate it out of state.”

Saudino also repeated a warning:

“No government agency will tell you to make payments to them through a bank or wire transfer,” Saudino noted.

“All notices regarding jury duty come through the mail, including summonses to report for jury duty, and failure to report for jury duty,” he added. “These notices are mailed directly from the New Jersey Judiciary Jury Management Office and give you specific information on who to contact, and how to comply with the summons.

“If you are being asked for your personal information from an unsolicited phone number, hang up immediately and notify your local authorities,” the sheriff said. “It is incumbent on all residents to be alert.

“And it does not hurt to take the time to verify these incidents with us.” Saudino added.

Anyone who believes they may also have been exposed to this or a similar type fraud is asked to contact either the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office at 201-646-2222 , www.bergentip.com , or your local police department.

STORY:  Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

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