PhotoThe bad thing about scam attempts is that they're a constant in today's world: if you have a phone number or an email address, you will hear from scammers seeking to make you their next victim.

The good thing about scam attempts is that most of them – not all of them, but the vast majority – are very easy to identify and avoid, provided you know what to look for.

For example: check out this “Notice to Appear” email I got from someone trying to pull an online variant of the old “jury duty scam.”

In the classic jury duty scam, the scammers contact you (usually but not always over the phone) to say that you're going to be arrested and thrown in jail, right away, for skipping out on jury duty — but if you pay a “fine” with a prepaid money card or some other untraceable payment method, you'll stay out of prison.

Sounds scary

This threat can sound especially scary because “jury duty” genuinely does exist, and skipping out on jury duty really will get you in trouble with legal authorities. And even if you know you haven't received, let alone ignored, any jury summonses lately — well, what if your summons got lost in the mail?

But if you call your local courthouse to confirm this threat, you'll find out it's a fake, because no legitimate sheriff, court clerk or police officer will send out legitimate legal notices (or issue fines) through email or over the phone. And even in the event that you genuinely do owe some sort of legal fine, that fine is never due within 30 minutes of you first hearing about it, nor before end-of-business that day, and no genuine legal fine is ever required to be paid through a wire transfer, in cash, or via any other untraceable method.

That said, “my” scammer is trying something slightly different; instead of a fake threat for missing jury duty, I got an unidentified (but vaguely ominous) “Notice to Appear”:

Notice to Appear,

The copy of the court notice is attached to this letter.
Please, read it thoroughly.

Truly yours,
Clerk to the Court,
Betty Mason

The email included two zip file attachments, which of course I did not open or click on because I know to never trust a zip file in an email, especially an unsolicited one.

And when I, out of curiosity, typed Betty Mason's name into Google, I got “Betty Mason clerk of the court” as a suggested search term. Unsurprisingly, that search brings up over 749,000 results associating alleged court clerk Betty Mason with a scammy email attempt to plant malware on people's computers.

Obvious signs

Of course, even if you've never heard about the jury duty scam, don't know the dangers of unsolicited zip files, and don't even realize that genuine American legal authorities still communicate via old-fashioned U.S. Mail rather than email, there's still some obvious signs indicating that e-mailed “Notice to Appear” is a fraud.

For starters, look at the sender's return address: no mention of any city, county or state government, let alone the feds (i.e., the various levels of government authority who might actually send legal notices my way); instead it's from somebody called “Lawyers Tax Solutions.” And the address ends in .com, whereas legitimate government websites in the United States end in .gov.

Also note the generic wording: no mention of my name, home address or any other personally identifying details found on actual legal notices.

Coincidentally, just last month I did receive a genuine jury duty summons from my county courthouse (though when the time came, I didn't actually have to serve), and that notice, which was printed on paper and landed in my regular postal mailbox rather than an electronic missive in my free web-based email account, did mention my full legal name and home address, along with the genuine mailing address of the county courthouse nearest me. Nothing of the kind appears in that emailed note from “Betty Mason.” Anytime an alleged legal notice or government warning lands in your email inbox, your safest course of action is to assume it's a fake, and delete it.

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