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He lost $7,000 in a phone scam, and it could have been stopped before it went too far

Scammers convinced Michael Marrs - pay up or be arrested for a crime he didn't commit. He drained $7,000 from his bank account.

MOCKSVILLE, N.C. — Michael Marrs has lived in Mocksville for about as long as he can remember.

Like most people, he trusts someone when they tell him something. So, when he got a phone call one day, he heard something alarming on the other end.

The caller claimed to be with the Social Security Administration. He said Marrs’ social security number was tied to a drug ring in Texas, there was a warrant for his arrest, and he needed to pay up.

"Then they were telling me that I had to have that money for a federal bond to keep from having officers come out and arrest me," Marrs said. 

At first, he was skeptical, hearing of this type of scam before. 

"He [the caller] said, 'Well, I'm going to call your local police department, and I'm going to have an officer from there call you to tell you this is legit,'" Marrs recalled the caller telling him. "It wasn't five minutes later it showed on my caller ID: Mocksville Police Department." 

The number was spoofed, and the person on the other end sounded like a real officer. 

"He went so far as to give me his badge number and everything else," Marrs said. 

The second caller told Marrs there was a warrant for his arrest. That’s when Marrs started to believe it.

"I was scared. I'm not going to lie to you,” Marrs said. “I didn't want to go to prison for something I hadn't done."

Minutes later, the original man called back, and convinced Marrs to take out all the money in his bank account - all $7,000 - and buy Walmart gift cards to pay off the warrant. Marrs started with $2,000 at the Mocksville Walmart. Then he got $5,000 worth of gift cards at the Clemmons neighborhood market. He read off the numbers to the man on the phone - all 14 gift cards worth $500 each.

"I did everything they asked me to do,” Marrs said. “They called back the next day to tell me they needed $3,000 more. I told them I didn't have it."

But the man on the phone wasn't satisfied. 

"He was wanting me to go to some of the local car dealerships, and he had the names of the dealerships that he wanted me to go to,” Marrs said. “[The caller] wanted me to go there to see about selling one of my vehicles."

Around this time, Marrs confided in a neighbor who was able to convince him it was a scam. But it was too late. Marrs had been duped out of every dollar he had.

“When that happened, I didn't even have the money to pay my bills, to eat, to do nothing,” Marrs said. “I mean, it completely wiped me out."

His devastation quickly turned to anger. 

"I was mad at myself because I really felt stupid. But like I said, they were so convincing," Marrs said. 

His anger only grew when he went back to Walmart to tell a manager what happened. 

"She told me this should've never have happened. She said anything over $500 is supposed to be questioned. I said, 'Well ma'am, I got $2,000 and I got $5,000 in Clemmons. Nobody asked me anything,'" Marrs recalled. 

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said he's seen this scenario play out, time and again. His office is trying to help. 

"We're reaching out to the retailers, so they train their clerks in how to spot this," Stein said. "Most of these companies, they want to protect their customers, too...it's just important we educate them about the role they're playing in the defrauding of them, and then they can actually take concrete steps to minimize and mitigate this fraud."

In a statement to us, Walmart said it “takes any fraud impacting our customers seriously. We continue to implement and improve upon measures designed to help guard against various consumer scams.”

Walmart also included a list of measures it takes:

  • Store and Online Customer Awareness Programs - use of in-store signage, brochures, and videos to further educate consumers, as well as an online repository about various types of scams.
  • Partnering with advocacy organizations to increase awareness of elder financial exploitation.
  • Walmart Associate training and awareness about how to identify red flags and spot potential scams.
  • Ongoing technology changes aimed at reducing customer exposure to scams.
  • Walmart is closely partnered with law enforcement to thwart the epidemic of consumer fraud in the U.S.

Stein said his department is also trying to combat phone call spoofing, so your caller ID can't lie to you. He's working with other AGs and the big phone companies to make it happen.

"When that gets fully implemented, which we hope it will this year, we should see a dramatic decline in the number of spoofed phone calls," Stein said. 

An encouraging step forward, but too little too late for Michael Marrs.

"I get sick every time I go to the bank or anywhere else. Like I said, I'm still struggling to pay my bills," Marrs said. 

A mistake that’s left a lasting impression - one he hopes others won’t make.