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Scammers impersonate Washington County Sheriff’s Office

If a phone caller says the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is asking for your money, beware. The call most likely is a scam.

A recent phone scam, rapidly evolving and locally spreading, is based on the impersonation of a sheriff’s deputy who tells citizens to call or talk to the Internal Revenue Service because they owe money. The scammer warns of a warrant arrest if money is not paid.

An astute resident recently reported the scam to the sheriff’s office. His suspicion was raised when a male suspect, posing as a deputy from the sheriff’s office, requested the citizen call back to pay the IRS.

On caller ID, the incoming call looked like a valid sheriff’s office records department phone number. The fake deputy then asked the resident to call an out-of-state phone number. The resident was not fooled.

Reasons for suspicion

“Why would the sheriff’s department call you to call the IRS? The IRS would call you to call the IRS.” said Cheri Dexter, commander of investigations at the sheriff’s office. “We would never call you to pay money over the phone. You don’t pay fines over the phone. We don’t accept money for tickets over the phone. There will never be a (local) agency asking for money over the phone.”

Spoofing the number of the sheriff’s office and answering the phone like a deputy or IRS agent might answer -- a la “Washington County Sheriff’s Office” or “IRS, how can I help you?” -- is highly offensive to Dexter, and illegal, she said.

Investigators called the out-of-state phone number multiple times, taking the scam as far as they could, in hopes of getting a handle on the location or identity of the scam artists, and tracking them down.

“We play along,” Dexter said. “The sheriff’s office is talking with the fake sheriff’s office.”

Solving the scam is extremely difficult, Dexter said.

Scam spreads

Woodbury Public Safety knows the drill all too well.

In March and April, a brazen scam artist used Woodbury Police Commander Steve Wills’ name to get immediate payment of fake fines via pre-paid credit cards or wire transfers through Western Union. Victims of that scam have sent green dot or vanilla cards loaded with cash value to the fraudulent callers.

The scam involving the sheriff’s office is similar to the scam involving local police, Dexter said, although currently, the fake deputy uses a made-up name, not the name of a real deputy.

Impersonating a police officer, fraud and theft by swindle are all felonies, Wills said this spring.

Since then, the scam quickly spread throughout the county, periodically changing its focus to avoid detection.

“There will be more calls made,” Dexter warned.

Report all phone scams

Phone scams should be reported to local police. If a resident receives a suspicious call, she should hang up and call back the local police to report the situation.

The sheriff's office, local police departments and the courts will never call residents and demand that they pay outstanding fines or tickets by phone, according to a press release from the sheriff’s office. If anyone has been a victim of this scam and has not already reported it they should call their local police agency.

If you suspect a scam, ask for a call-back number, talk to a neighbor or family member to see if they received similar calls, or call Woodbury Public Safety at 651-714-3600 to speak to an officer.

Any Cottage Grove or Woodbury residents who feel they are a victim of a phone scam should call dispatch at 651-439-9381.