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Authorities warn of surge in phone scams

Some Washington County residents were filling out different paperwork ahead of Monday's tax deadline: police reports documenting a tax-related phone scam.

Local authorities said they saw a burst of complaints ahead of the April 18 tax deadline, and some people have lost thousands of dollars after falling victim to the untraceable phone swindlers.

Washington County is fielding reports on two scams, sheriff's Cmdr. Cheri Dexter said last week. One involves a phone call from someone claiming to be law enforcement and notifying the resident that a grandchild is in jail and needs money for court or bail. The resident is told to provide cash, money orders or gift cards.

Another scam reported in increased numbers is a phone call from someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service. The caller says money is owed and if it is unpaid an arrest warrant will be issued. Like the so-called "grandparent scam," IRS scam callers demand cash or gift cards, Dexter said. In some cases the scam has involved a courier showing up at a victim's home to collect money or retail gift cards.

"It's just really sad," she said.

One resident in Grant, west of Stillwater, lost $27,000 in the grandparent scam, Dexter said. Others have been tricked out of $2,000 or $3,000.

"That's a lot of money to some of these people," she said.

Since January, Woodbury Public Safety has received 31 reports of IRS scams. None of them resulted in financial loss, but two grandparent scams netted fraudulent losses in Woodbury.

Scam reports really picked up last week in St. Paul Park, police Chief Jessica Billmeyer said. There were more than a half-dozen reports over two days alone.

"Thankfully (we) haven't had anybody that's fallen for it," Billmeyer said.

Cottage Grove residents have reported the scams, too. Police Capt. Pete Koerner said there were nine IRS scam reports from January to early March and more since then. There were a dozen grandparent scam reports.

"They are continuing," he said.

Cottage Grove police also have taken a couple of reports of people who seek personal information and money through fake home or apartment rental ads on Craigslist. One person fell victim and lost money, the other didn't.

Dexter said law enforcement is trying to alert residents, particularly the elderly, and encouraging people to talk to friends and relatives because not everyone looks at social media warnings about the scams.

The scams aren't new, Dexter noted. Authorities have warned of them for years.

"We've just been seeing a rash of them," she said, noting the upcoming tax deadline. "It just seems like people are falling victim to them again."

The IRS and police are reminding residents neither the tax agency nor law enforcement would attempt to obtain personal information or money over the phone. People who receive a call they believe to be a scam are encouraged to tell the caller it will be reported to the police department.

People who have provided personal information are encouraged to call the Washington County sheriff's dispatch office at 651-439-9381.

The IRS suggests people who receive a suspicious call from someone seeking money for owed taxes to contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484.

Mathias Baden contributed to this report.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

(651) 459-7600
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