Millinocket car dealer warns of letter scam

Posted Sept. 30, 2010, at 11:28 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:28 a.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Mike Murphy could tell almost immediately that it was a scam.

He received on his fax machine Thursday a very official-sounding letter — supposedly from the federal Department of Transportation — saying that Katahdin Motors Inc. of Millinocket was registered as “a prospective contractor for procurements issued” by the DOT but that he had not submitted his “financial information re-lease form” and asked that the data be faxed to a Washington, D.C., number.

The general manager at the car dealership, Murphy was impressed — for a few seconds, anyway.

“It looked really official,” he said Thursday. “The first question I had was why would they need to know this. And then not seeing a [regular] phone number on there made me concerned.”

Murphy’s telephone call to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ office confirmed that the fax was fraudulent.

In fact, Collins said, the department’s inspector general “has warned that many contractors around the country have received similar letters asking them to provide bank account information on an ‘Authorization to Release Financial Information’ form.”

“While the letter looks legitimate, it is not,” Collins said in a statement.

A notice on the DOT inspector general’s website, oig.dot.gov/fraud-alert, notes 30 instances of the letter being reported since December 2005. Though the letter to Murphy was dated Tuesday, the version he received, signed by “Julie P. Wenzel,” also was reported five times in 2007.

Other versions have been signed by “Julie P. Weynel,” “Julie P. Weynol,” and 15 other false names, according to the website.

The letter has all of the basic elements of a scam: It seems legitimate, has an alluring hook — a promise of financial reward — and requires the quick disclosure of sensitive or confidential information to get that reward.

It features a letterhead resembling the DOT logo and claims to be from a “Senior Procurement Officer.”

It points out that his “financial institution’s privacy policy may not allow it to release your financial information even to government institutions without your consent” and says that the DOT “must have such form on file before we can move on with any procurement decisions.”

It then says that DOT will be making final its procurement plan for the fourth quarter of 2010 in October and “to be eligible for procurement with the U.S. Department of Transportation, you must submit the aforementioned form to us by fax.”

“I could see how somebody could go to the DOT website, which has that screwy logo on it, and figure the letter came from there, as it [the letter] has official-sounding language,” Murphy said. “My big concern with that thing was, I don’t give that information out, but how many mom-and-pop operations in the transportation business might immediately send that information in?

“Normally we wad that stuff up and throw it in the trash, but this looked like it could fool someone,” he added.

Anyone who wants to report having been targeted by the fake DOT letter can visit oig.dot.gov/fraud-alert.

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