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Zoom has become the way of the world in the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also opened the door to a new scam at a time when people are already vulnerable.

Court proceedings have always been open to the public, with a few exceptions. But when the pandemic hit, everyone, including the courts, had to pivot. That meant turning to Zoom for hearings, but WGN News has learned someone is taking advantage of the situation and exploiting people.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said last week her office learned someone was listening in on the Zoom court calls. They wrote down telephone numbers and then would reach out to the defendants, pretending to be with the public defender’s office.

“That is fraud, please do not fall for that, that is a scam,” Campanelli said. “A public defender will never call you and ask for money, for any reason. So if someone is doing that, they are not a public defender.”

Access to the court hearings is easy to find. The Zoom dial-in numbers and passwords are listed on the Cook County courts homepage. A spokesperson for the office of the chief judge said the phone numbers of the participants joining Zoom are masked, but observers say sometimes telephone numbers of defendants are read aloud in court.

Sarah Staudt, with the Chicago Appleseed Center for Fair Courts, says the issue of people’s personal information being disclosed accidently on Zoom court calls is something they’ve been aware of for awhile.

“In order to facilitate communication between lawyers and people who are appearing in court for example, there needs to be an exchange of phone numbers and if judges aren’t careful about how they asked those questions that number gets broadcast out into the world along with the person’s name and the fact that they have a criminal charge and all this other stuff that makes them susceptible obviously to a scam like this,” she said.

If you have been a victim of this scam, contact your local police department.

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