Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford on Thursday cautioned county residents to be on the alert for three new sophisticated scam operations that have raked in thousands of dollars from unsuspecting taxpayers, phone customers and others.
One scam hits particularly close to home for Rutherford, since it involves a bogus attempt to collect taxes supposedly owed to Kanawha County by a non-existent “Kanawha County Tax Processing Unit.”
Those targeted by scammers receive a letter from the bogus tax processing unit’s “Public Judgement Records” section, on which an “Immediate Action Required” warning appears, along with an official-looking seal featuring the likeness of a shield-bearing eagle.
The letter is similar to the type used to mail federal tax documents, requiring recipients to remove perforated edges in order to open. Inside the letter is a “Distraint Warrant,” which warns that wages and bank account funds may be garnished and property seized if the listed tax debt is not paid in full or a toll-free number called to “to avoid enforcement.”
Legitimate distraint warrants are used by states and counties to ensure payment on overdue taxes.
“We want to make sure everyone knows this is fake,” said Rutherford. “If anyone has a question about taxes owed to Kanawha County, call our tax office.”
A similar distraint warrant scam was operating in the Parkersburg area in April, this one seeking payment for overdue and unpaid federal taxes. Other scams using the same style letter with similar markings were reported in Kane County, Illinois, and Richland County, Ohio, earlier this year.
A second scam described by Rutherford involves individuals receiving a text message purportedly sent by Verizon Wireless, stating there is a problem with their mobile phone service and asking them to call a provided number to resolve the issue.
Those dialing the number hear a recorded female voice welcome them to Verizon Wireless, and ask if they would prefer the message be delivered in Spanish before asking them to confirm their mobile phone number and key in their Verizon PIN number.
“It’s a very official sounding message,” said Rutherford. “It’s so professional-sounding, anyone could fall for it.” But the call-back number given connects with the scammers and not the phone company, he said.
Using the supplied PIN number, the scammers access the callers’ accounts and use it to order equipment. “In one case, they ordered $4,000 worth of phone equipment,” Rutherford said.
Scammers contact their victims after the unwanted gear arrives at their homes and explain that the items were shipped to them in error, and ask that they be returned or picked up. Once the gear is in the scammers’ hands, victims are left on the hook to pay for it, since the items can no longer be returned to their real phone service provider, leaving scammers free to sell the equipment.
While Verizon is believed to be the only company in the area affected by the scam, Rutherford urged residents to assume that scammers will fake affiliation with other companies in future schemes.
A third scam now operating in the county involves free money, in the form of unsolicited checks, drawn on the account of a Pennsylvania truck dealership, and sent to area residents without explanation.
“Most of the checks seem to be written for $2,500,” Rutherford said. Scammers apparently hacked either the dealership’s computer system or that of its bank to make the issuance of the checks possible, the purpose of which is uncertain.
If scammers accessed the bank’s system, they could be checking to see where the checks were deposited and collect routing or account numbers.
“Or it may be an attempt to destroy the business,” Rutherford said. At any rate, anyone who succeeds at cashing the checks will likely be legally liable to pay back funds received.
The checks are drawn on the account of TruckSmart Inc., of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, and issued through Firstrust Bank of Newton, Pennsylvania.
Anyone receiving the checks is urged to contact the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office.
“Scams take place any time of year, but that kind of activity seems to pick up during the holiday season, when people are distracted,” Rutherford said.