Nearly Every Corner of W.Va. Courthouse Affected by ID Theft

Employees at the Monroe County Courthouse are among the latest victims of an apparent information highjacking.

by Tina Alvey, The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va. / April 6, 2017

(TNS) -- UNION, W.Va. — Identity theft is a crime that just keeps on taking.

Employees at the Monroe County Courthouse are among the latest victims of an apparent information highjacking, but at this point no one is even certain if the stolen data came from electronic or paper records. All that county officials are sure of now is that, thus far, eight people connected to county government have seen their identities stolen, with more coming forward every day.

"It kind of makes you feel helpless," said Assessor Norbert Netzel, who is among the victims.

Netzel asked county commissioners Wednesday to pay for ongoing credit monitoring for all courthouse employees, noting that an employee in his office who is the most recently identified victim has discovered that her Social Security number was used to access her credit card accounts. Therefore, that employee, along with other victims — including County Commissioner Shane Ashley and former Commissioner Clyde Gum Jr. — is being forced to close out her credit card accounts with no assurance that she will be able ever again to use her own Social Security number to establish a similar account.

"It's going to affect us for years to come," Netzel said.

The data theft was discovered almost four weeks ago, according to County Clerk Donald Evans.

"An employee got a letter from the IRS advising that someone was trying to file a tax return using that employee's Social Security number," he said.

The letter, which the employee independently verified was legitimate, instructed the recipient to call a certain number and speak with an IRS representative. And the representative confirmed the employee's identity had been stolen.

Ashley discovered his Social Security number had been lifted through a similar notification from the IRS. He said the federal agency was alerted to a probable discrepancy when the fraudulent tax return filed on his account claimed a sizable refund that would have been out of the norm, given Ashley's tax history.

He said for at least the next several years, he will have to obtain and use a series of different identification numbers when filing tax returns.

As the county's payroll agent, Evans has found himself thwarted at every turn as he attempts to discover how someone hacked into employee records.

"We've not determined how they got our information," he said, adding, "The information goes electronically to various agencies."

He said paper records maintained by his office are in a secure location that does not appear to have been compromised.

Evans said he has consulted with the local computer expert who maintains the county system's firewall and with the county's "main computer guy," who said it did not appear a hack was involved.

Evans said the sheriff is working on the case, and contact has been made with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin's office for assistance in obtaining cooperation from the IRS in this investigation.

The county clerk's own efforts to pin down the IRS have been fruitless. He said, based on information provided by a victimized courthouse employee, he had called the IRS to get an address and other identifying information about the thief that was presumably part of the false tax return filed under the employee's Social Security number. The IRS refused to provide that "confidential" information, Evans said.

"I don't know why the IRS isn't being more aggressive in investigating this," he said.

He noted that one IRS representative with whom he spoke seemed almost amused by his frustration, telling him, "Oh, honey, we have thousands and thousands and thousands of these (ID thefts) every day."

"Well, it's not something that happens to us every day," Evans fumed.

Acknowledging that more victims may emerge, the commission eventually decided to go ahead and pay for a year's worth of a relatively expensive form of credit monitoring for employees who have been victimized, and then to continue the monitoring at a lower level, if needed, in future years. The cost per employee for the initial year will be $358, according to Evans.

Evans said he had notified everyone in the courthouse about the potential problem immediately after the first victim came forward. Today, nearly every corner of the Monroe Courthouse has been directly affected by the crime, with only the offices of the county clerk and circuit clerk not having at least one victim.

©2017 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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