A Very Strange Check

Today I got a very strange check in the mail. It's clearly designed to make me think it's my state tax refund, but I am skeptical about its authenticity, for a number of reasons, which I shall outline below.

The very first strange thing is the timeframe. This check arrived before my federal tax refund. The federal refund has always arrived first, before the state one, in the past. I just mailed off my IT-1040 a couple of weeks ago, so I wasn't expecting a refund check for another month at least. If that were the only oddity, of course, I'd just figure the state got their act together better this year, maybe some new electronic processing or something, and the checks are coming out sooner. But...

The address in the upper-left corner of the check, which showed through the envelope in the return-address position (the envelope itself has no information on it at all), is a P.O. Box address for something called "Taxation-Refund/Research", which sounds very much like it was carefully constructed to let extremely gullible recipients think that it might come from the Department of Taxation, without actually saying so.

The check is signed by someone named "J. Pari Saberty", whom I've never heard of, and whose title is given as "Director", and the subtext reads "Office of Budget Management". Real state tax refund checks, at least in Ohio, are signed by someone with a significantly more familiar title, such as State Treasurer, or at least they always have been in the past. I've never heard of the "Office of Budget Management" before, and I find it interesting that it isn't the "Ohio Office of Budget Management", as one would expect if it were a legitimate branch of the state government. Perhaps it is the Office of Budget Management of the Taxation-Refund/Research Corporation?

There are some other oddities. The check has a warrant number; maybe I'm just forgetting, but I don't recall seeing one of those on a check before. In the upper-right corner there are also three different unlabeled numbers; there's no way to know what they are supposed to represent.

The tear-off sheet on top, which came folded behind the check, also includes a warrant date and, I am not making this up, a vendor number, as well as a voucher ID number. That word voucher is a bit scary. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but in the back of my mind, there is a notion rolling around that a voucher can come with strings attached.

Then there's this wording:
This payment represents your Personal Income tax refund.
For payment information contact 800-282-1780.

That word "represents" is outright terrifying in its clearly deliberate vagueness. They went out of their way to avoid saying that this is in fact my refund. It only represents my refund. One supposes my actual refund will be coming along later, from the state, and if I've cashed this check meanwhile, then I'll probably owe the refund itself to "Taxation-Refund/Research", perhaps with interest and other attached strings.

I could look up that 800 number and see who it belongs to, but realistically there's no point, because even if the phone number belongs to the Ohio Department of Taxation, it only means that this outfit printed that phone number on the document they sent me. The wording surrounding it is sufficiently vague ("For payment information") that you couldn't even really argue that the outfit issuing the check is claiming the number belongs to them. There's clearly no such claim. They're just advising you to call the number if you need information.

So I did a web search for "Taxation-Refund/Research", and I found... an article on a blog, headlined "Refund checks aren't a scam; they're the work of state government". On a blog. Yeah.

I'll say that again, because it bears repeating: my web search for the name of the organization that issued this check turns up an article on a blog. There are no other significant results. Notably, a web search for this outfit does not turn up any Ohio state government websites.

The blog article is designed to look like it's a column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but the domain name of the blog, while it is a name that would be very plausible for the Plain Dealer, does not match the actual domain name of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, (which I looked up in a search engine).

At this point, loud alarm bells are going off in my brain.

When I trim the blog article's URL back to just the domain name, it's... a blog-hosting site. There's a "sign up for a blog" link right there in the sidebar, which is presumably what "Taxation-Refund/Research" did, I guess.

The blog article claims that the Ohio Department of Taxation got enough calls about the redesigned checks that they posted a sample of what the new checks look like on their website. This claim should be verifiable... but I have looked on said Dept of Taxation website and have not been able to locate any such thing. It's possible that I'm just missing it, I suppose... government websites are notoriously badly organized and difficult to navigate. But it's also at least vaguely conceivable to me that the blog article, reputable though it may seem on account of the fact that somebody posted it up on the internet, is less than 100% accurate, as unlikely as that may seem. This is one detail of the article that I should be able to verify, if it were true, and I cannot.

On the other hand, there's a light "Great Seal of the State of Ohio" graphic built into the background of the check, which probably should ought to be illegal for a private company to use in this manner without proper authorization, though I'm not a lawyer and can't really say this for certain. And yes, I know what said seal is supposed to look like, and this looks like it. So there's that.

Also, the amount of the check happens to exactly match the amount of the refund I was expecting, which would be a pretty odd coincidence if they didn't get the number from the Ohio Dept of Taxation. Then again, the name of the outfit issuing the check includes the word "Research", so maybe they know something I don't about the legal nuances of tax and public records laws. I thought the amount of your tax refund was considered confidential and not disclosed to third parties, but I am not a lawyer and could be mistaken about this. I'd have to research it to be sure, but this also points toward the check perhaps being legitimate, unless there's something I don't know. So there's that too.

Additionally, the check says "VOID AFTER 2 YEARS", which is a normal duration for a tax refund check. You'd normally expect a scam to say something more like "VOID AFTER THIRTY DAYS", to encourage people to stop thinking and just go cash the thing already. This, to my way of thinking, is the strongest piece of evidence I could find that the check might in fact be legitimate.

The two-year duration allows me to just hang onto the thing for a couple of months, if I am so inclined, to see if perhaps my real tax refund check will arrive in the mail from the Ohio Department of the Treasury. Since the check is for a small amount, I might just do that, rather than bother doing any further research.

But it seems very likely to me that this is some kind of scam. The supposed Plain Dealer article on a blog, rather than on the Plain Dealer website, and the lack of any evidence on the web that there's any "Taxation-Refund/Research" associated with any branch of the Ohio state government, are both difficult to explain away. And if it is a scam, it's one of the most underhandedly ingenious ones I've ever seen, and likely to catch a lot of unsuspecting people.


Sheryl Harris said...

This is Sheryl Harris. I write a consumer column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the article you're referencing is mine, and it's real.

I applaud your caution, but your conclusion is just a teensy bit flawed. The Ohio Tax Department addresses the refund check confusion in its FAQ -- you can find it at tax.ohio.gov.

I write about scams and consumer problems. You'll find archived columns and my official blog at www.cleveland.com/consumeraffairs. Additionally, you can find information about many common types of scams -- and where to report them -- at cleveland.com/scamfinder.

Have a great day.
Sheryl Harris
consumer columnist
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Jonadab said...

The thing is, I already looked at the FAQs on the Ohio Dept of Taxation website, and I was not able to find any information there about what the refund checks look like, or who issues them, or anything related.

In the individual income tax FAQ, I found answers to the following questions regarding refunds:

* I'm due a refund. Do I still need to file an Ohio income tax return? (Yes, obviously.)

* I moved since I filed my Ohio individual income tax return. How can I get my refund? (Notify the post office so they can forward your mail.)

* My spouse had died, but my refund check has both our names on it. What should I do? (If your name's on there too, what's the problem?)

* My income tax refund check was lost, destroyed or stolen. What should I do? (Contact the Dept. of Taxation.)

* I am requesting a refund and want to make a donation to one or more of the programs listed on the Ohio income tax return. (Fill out the relevant line on the return, then.)

These are all pretty straightforward, but none of them say anything about the refund checks suddenly looking an awful lot like some kind of scam and confusing people.

In fact, I have not been able to verify any of your blog article's claims about the content on the Ohio Department of Taxation website, and I *definitely* cannot verify your claims about what "Taxation-Refund/Research" is, as there is, as near as I can tell, *no* reference to it at all on any Ohio state government website.

From here, it looks as if you're just making stuff up and hoping people won't bother to check.

Now, government websites do tend to be somewhat disorganized, so maybe I'm just missing something. If you could provide the address of the specific page on the Department of Taxation website that contains the information you claim is there...

Jonadab said...

Upon closer inspection, it emerges that the blog hosting site (cleveland.com) does have some kind of affiliate relationship with the Cleveland Plain Dealer (although it is not owned by the paper), so it is entirely plausible that a Plain Dealer columnist might have a blog there. Indeed, it is possible that all Plain Dealer writers have blogs there as a matter of course.

This still does not explain why a newspaper article would be hosted on the affiliated blog site, rather than on the main newspaper website (plaindealer.com).

And it certainly does not negate my earlier observation that anyone, including a scam artist, could easily sign up for a blog on cleveland.com and claim to be a Plain Dealer columnist (and, for that matter, claim to be Sheryl Harris, and put her picture on the article, and so on). I could do so myself. It would take all of five minutes to set up. So there is no obvious way for me, from here, to determine whether the blog post in question actually belongs to said columnist or not. If someone else did create a fraudulent blog in her name, would she even notice? How quickly?

Be that as it may, what interests me more is exploring the veracity (or not) of the article's actual claims.

For instance, the article says this:

"You can find the status of your state refund, see a sample check and get answers to state tax questions by visiting tax.ohio.gov (click on the state-shaped 'Filing Season Central' icon) or by calling the state's refund hot line at 1-800-282-1780."

Well, the state-shaped icon is for information on local tax rates and seems completely unrelated, but there is a Filing Season Central option (perhaps its icon used to be state-shaped and the site has been changed?), which takes you to this page about individual income tax, which does seem relevant.

The link to check on the status of your refund is there, as the article indicates (which seems to confirm that I am in fact looking at the page the article refers to), but checking on the status of my refund can't necessarily conclusively verify for me that the check I have in hand is for real. (Even if I check and they say it's been mailed, it could still be in the mail.)

The article seems to say that from this page I can see a sample check... but I don't see that, nor do I see any link that seems likely to lead to it (though, again, I could be missing something).

There's a link to information about electronic filing options...

Oh, look, What's new for the 2008 filing season? If there's anything new or different about the checks this year, surely there would be information about it there... So, what's new?

Well, it talks about lower tax rates... a military retirement pay exemption... a larger personal exemption... a larger medical savings account deduction... municipal and school district income tax...

But there's nothing there about new weird-looking checks. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Not a syllable. Completely unmentioned. Call me a cynic, but it's almost as if the Department of Taxation doesn't know about these weird new checks that arrive early and don't appear to come from the state government.

If this check I have is for real, somebody in Columbus has dropped a ball after a most terrifically egregious fashion. Sending me a check that I cannot verify is legitimate is almost worse than not sending the refund at all.

sammy said...

The check is legit. Go to tax.ohio.gov, find individual income tax page, then scroll down that page to additional resourses. There you will find your answer that "refund checks have a different look", and you can find the sample there too.
url is http://tax.ohio.gov/divisions/communications/warrant_format_change.stm

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