Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about scam calls on the Central Coast. The first part describes one local woman’s experience with a scammer who used her job and background to target her. The second will focus on the aftermath, others who have had similar experiences, and the resources available to help.
She was in the car with her young daughter when her purple iPhone rang in December 2021.
“My father had just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and it happened to be my mom’s birthday,” remembers Dr. Nicole Dolan, a mental health professional who lives in Orcutt and practices in Pismo Beach. “My daughter and I had just gotten a cake for her so that we could have dinner and celebrate.”
She let the call go to voicemail. A man claiming to be Sgt. Jeff Nichols with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office left her a message saying he needed to speak with her about an important matter and told her to call back as soon as possible.
Immediately suspicious that it could be a scam, Dolan looked up Nichols’ name and found that he was a real law enforcement officer in SLO County.
“I didn’t call back the number that called me. The first thing that I did was call the SLO County Sheriff’s [Office] directly,” Dolan said. “I said, ‘Hi, my name’s Nicole Dolan. [Sgt.] Nichols is trying to get ahold of me. Can you put me through to him?’”
The person who answered the phone at the Sheriff’s Office told Dolan that Nichols was out responding to an incident and that he would call her back.
“Within the next 15 to 20 minutes, when I’m waiting for the real officer Nichols to call me back, the fraudulent one called,” Dolan said. “So I answer the phone, and thought, ‘OK, well I guess this is legit.’”
Dolan never thought she’d fall victim to a scam call. But what she didn’t realize at the time was that she was in the middle of one. The scammer held her hostage on the phone for hours, slowly wearing her down emotionally, and making her so desperate for it to be over that she’d do almost anything for it to end—and she did.
Ultimately, Dolan gave the fraudster thousands of dollars. Traumatized, she’s still grappling with the emotional consequences of the extortion, and she doesn’t want others to endure what she went through.
The man on the phone claiming to be Sgt. Nichols knew Dolan’s name, profession, and where she lived. He said she had failed to appear in court to testify on behalf of one of her clients, and as a result, there was a warrant out for her arrest.
“They said that they made two or three attempts at my home and at each of my offices to serve a subpoena to me, and because I missed that subpoena to show up in court to testify for a minor client of mine, there was a warrant for my arrest for failure to appear and contempt of court,” Dolan said.
Testifying in court for a patient is something that mental health professionals like Dolan have to do from time to time—which made the scammer’s claims seem all the more legitimate.
“In my field, that is the one thing that we are taught when we’re in school to be deathly afraid of,” she said. “Not showing up for a subpoena, for a court appearance.”
After spending about an hour speaking in heavy police jargon, reading Dolan her rights, and explaining the nature of the warrant, the impersonator began to employ fear tactics.
“They went into this whole elaborate story about how the woman downstairs in my office actually may have signed for me, and I needed to make a decision if I wanted to press criminal charges against her or not,” Dolan said. “I was really freaked out by that because the lady downstairs is my landlord, so I became really worried.”
The scammer told Dolan that she needed to come down to the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office right away to take a handwriting test and prove it wasn’t her signature.
“They told me at that point that I was basically under arrest,” she said.
Her body shook with fear, she said, and her daughter, who was still in the car with her, was terrified.
“My child is freaking out, and I’m like, ‘It’s OK honey, everything’s going to be OK,’” Dolan remembered. “So I have to come home and drop my child off.”
As she drove to her home in Orcutt, the scammer threatened her, saying that if Dolan ended the call they would come and arrest her. They also told her there was a gag order, so she wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody about what was going on.
“I leave my house, and it’s about a 45-minute drive to SLO,” Dolan said. “I was pretty concerned at this point. I believed that I was going to go to jail. But afterwards, I realized I was also afraid for my life.”
The scammer told Dolan to drive to the Sheriff’s Office, but as she drove, the impersonator started laying the foundation to take Dolan’s money.
“They proceed to tell me that now they need money from me because there’s a warrant for my arrest, and if I don’t clear my warrant, then when I show up on the premises of the police station, they have no choice but to arrest me,” Dolan said.
As soon as money was brought up, Dolan told the caller that she believed he was scamming her. But by then, she had been on the phone for close to two and a half hours. She was emotionally exhausted and worn down—exactly where the fraudster wanted her.
“He had a very police response to that, and then he asked me at the end of his lecture if I wanted to talk to his partner,” Dolan said. “I remember at that moment feeling surrender come over my body. I had cortisol pumping through my body, I couldn’t even make decisions anymore. When he offered for me to talk to his partner, it just scared me so much that I gave him the numbers that he wanted. I gave him $5,000.”
After giving the scammer the money, Dolan hung up and called the Sheriff’s Office again.
“I just demanded to speak to Officer Nichols,” Dolan said.
The moment he said hello, she knew she had been scammed. The real Sgt. Nichols’ voice was completely different from the man who had tormented her for the previous two and a half hours.
“I just started crying and shaking, telling him what happened,” Dolan recalled.
Meanwhile, “I was getting text messages from the perpetrator saying, ‘I know where you live, don’t report it.’ [Nichols] told me specifically what to say: ‘I’ve contacted Officer Nichols at the SLO County Sheriff’s Department, here’s his badge number.’ As soon as I did that, I didn’t hear from them again.”
Nichols told the Sun that this was the first time he’s had his name used in an impersonation scam, but it’s happened to his colleagues before.
“I remember this incident specifically because I recall my dispatch telling me somebody had called,” Nichols said. “I was able to touch base with her, and she was relieved to find out that no, she wasn’t in trouble. Unfortunately, she had already been victimized.”
But for Dolan, what was harder than losing the money was the trauma she carried after the incident.
“When it first happened, I was horribly upset,” she said. “But I was also really angry because I recognized I had been traumatized. I have a trauma history, and I work with trauma, so it felt really upsetting to know that somebody who really just wanted my money had that large of an impact on my psyche.”
Reach New Times Staff Writer Malea Martin at [email protected]. Check back in next week for the second part of the story.