On March 6, the right-leaning publication Carolina Journal warned readers about “fraud season” with two stories on how “Mexicans” and people using fake “Hispanic-sounding names” were generating billions in fraud with fake IDs during tax season.
The first article features Sanford resident Martha Underwood, portrayed as a regular taxpayer who stumbled upon some scary fraudsters last March (2013). According to the article, Underwood contacted the Carolina Journal in January 2014 (nine months after her run-in with potential scammers) to tell her story. The timeline:
- March 2013: Underwood receives a mysterious envelope allegedly containing a Maryland-state tax refund check made out to “someone with a Hispanic-sounding name.”
- March 2013: A week later, she marks the envelope “fraud” and drops it off at the post office with instructions that it be returned to sender. Some weeks later, she witnesses two men in a van take mail from her neighbor’s mailbox, give a “victory shout,” hop back in the van, and “burn rubber” off of her street.
- January 2014: Underwood contacts the Carolina Journal after reading about tax return fraud.
- March 2014: The Carolina Journal story features a photo of Underwood and tells her story.
The article’s only hint that Underwood is a Lee County GOP activist and political appointee is her acknowledgment that she reads the Carolina Journal. But GOP activist she is, and she was appointed to the Central Carolina Community College Board of Trustees by the Jim Womack-led Board of Commissioners. Womack included Underwood in a list of “true patriots who I also take pride in being closely associated with” on his now-defunct Republican attack blog.
Underwood has been known to write letters to the Sanford Herald advocating for GOP candidates, with one of those letters appearing on the Lee County GOP’s site. Lastly, she was also listed as a Republican poll observer in the City of Sanford’s 2013 election.
So what does this all mean?
We’re not arguing against the idea that there are people out there trying to commit fraud during tax season. And we’re sure even “Mexicans” make up a percentage of the fraudsters.
But there’s a lot about the story in the Journal that doesn’t add up. The first thing is the timeline.
A search of the Carolina Journal’s website shows that the first mention of “SIRF” (stolen identity refund fraud) occurred on April 29, 2013. Underwood herself stated, she “didn’t know anything about this until I read about it in Carolina Journal.” If that’s the case, then Underwood was able to determine that the check with the Hispanic-sounding name on it was possibly fraudulent a month before she ever learned of the scheme in the Journal.
Underwood also doesn’t claim to have attempted to contact any authorities in this matter. Instead, she claims she sent a check she thought to be fraudulent back through the mail. When seeing a van full of people, two men digging through her neighbor’s mail, and hearing a “victory shout” from them, she did not call the police? The Journal doesn’t report whether or not she took down the license plate or attempt to identify the men in any way.
And while we don’t see the need to tell anybody where Mrs. Underwood lives, it’s worth noting that there’s a matching street to hers (it’s not a terribly common street name) in Frederick, Md. — the state from which the “fraudulent” check was sent. Of course, that proves nothing either way. But “wrong address” is as strong a theory as an attempt at fraud.
Finally, no documents exist. At least none published by the Journal. Underwood even confirmed that she didn’t open the mail, so how can she have any idea what it actually said?
And that’s the point. Of course fraud happens. But in this case, readers have to take real leaps of logic and faith to believe Underwood and the Carolina Journal have found it.