What would you prefer, a five-hundred dollar fine or a thirty-day prison sentence?
These are the options that residents of St. Louis County are given after they are told they failed to appear for their mandatory jury duty.
But there's a small catch. The call is not from court officials, but rather a site outside of Missouri called humorhotlines.com -- a fact which an automated call will tell you. That is, if you make it to the end of the message without panicking about your imminent incarceration.
People are being duped, county officials say.
The prank line that people are told to call is 704-319-7242. When they call that line, they hear a male voice delivering an "urgent message from the 'National Justice Center.'"
"Our records indicate you failed to appear for jury duty last Monday morning at 9 a.m," the voice says. "Unfortunately, ignoring these notifications and failing to appear in court for jury duty is a Class 3 misdemeanor. To make arrangements to pay the 500-dollar fine for failure to appear for jury duty, press two. To make arrangements to begin serving a 30-day prison sentence for failure to appear for jury duty, press three."
It sounds pretty darn official until the next sentence: "You have one final option and we strongly suggest you choose this one."
What's this third option? "Pay it forward" and prank a friend with the number. Gotcha!
Some people apparently aren't making it to that point in the call or are still tricked or scared after hearing the ending.
Paul Fox, director of judicial administration for St. Louis County, tells Daily RFT that the courts have recently gotten a total of three phone calls at their jury room from panicked people who received this message.
"They were not happy," he says. "They were not summoned for jury duty and they didn't understand why they were being told they had to pay fines."
Continue for more details on the county response and a video on the prank.
After quick investigation, officials traced it to the 704-number, which is a North Carolina area code.
"It turns out it's a hoax," he says.
Fox says that there have been similar complaints in Philadelphia in Georgia. Officials, he says, discussed the matter with county police, but determined that because there wasn't any particular crimes committed -- money stolen or identity theft, for example -- there was not much they could do.
So Fox talked to the press about it to spread the word and warn other potential victims.
He says it's not too big of a concern, since they've only heard from those three individuals so far -- and it's not clear how or why they were targeted or if anyone is actually specifically pranking people in the county.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it might be a scam...trying to get people to put credit card information online.... That's what really bothered me," he says. But, after investigating, he learned, "This is somebody's idea of a stupid of a stupid joke."
Here's a FOX 2 segment on the prank call.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.