State govs saying `No thanks` to mystery laptops

Last Updated: Saturday, August 29, 2009 - 10:08

Charleston: Even during tight budgetary times, a growing handful of state governors are proving too wary to accept laptop computers that have shown up at their offices this month, unsolicited.
The FBI was investigating after the governor`s offices in West Virginia, Vermont, Wyoming and Washington state received between three and five laptops — but none had ordered any of them.

"They immediately raised a red flag," said Matt Turner, spokesman for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. "No one said, `Hey, we got a free gift.`"

The laptops were made by Hewlett-Packard or came from its Compaq brand. The world`s leading PC maker said it told law enforcement that it intercepted and turned around similar deliveries ordered for six additional states.

"HP is aware that fraudulent state government orders recently have been placed for small amounts of HP equipment. HP took prompt corrective action to address the fraudulent orders and is working with law enforcement personnel on a criminal investigation," the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company said in a statement, declining further comment.

Hewlett-Packard has contracts to provide computer equipment to most states, including the four that received the unsolicited machines.

Each governor`s office reports that the machines arrived in two separate shipments, the earliest on Aug. 3. Susanne Young, a spokeswoman for Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, said the paperwork with one if its shipments indicated that they had been ordered July 22.

The National Governors Association has issued a bulletin about the suspicious shipments. It also said that Vermont`s laptops were paid for with a credit card issued in Douglas` name — but that was not one actually held by the governor or issued by that state.

Officials in Washington and Wyoming said those computers had been purchased with credit cards whose account numbers did not match any issued by those states. West Virginia State Police Sgt. Mike T. Baylous declined to comment on how the laptops shipped there may have been paid for.

"The State Police and the FBI are working jointly to get to the bottom of why these computers were sent to West Virginia," Baylous said Thursday.

Agent Jay Bartholomew, the FBI`s supervisory senior resident agent in Charleston, declined to comment Thursday.

Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, which watches out for identify theft and other fraud schemes, said he had not heard of such a situation and that a potential beneficiary was not immediately apparent.

But state officials were concerned about what could be lurking inside the laptops.

"I don`t know what`s on them, but I`m assuming we didn`t receive these as a gesture of goodwill," said Kyle Schafer, West Virginia`s chief technology officers. "We take very strong measures to protect ourselves from the outside world."

As a result, none of the governor`s offices report turning on any of the machines. They instead either shipped them back or handed them over to law enforcement.

"Once the first shipment came, we realized they were in error and began the process to send them back to the company," said Cara Eastwood, spokeswoman for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. "When we got the second shipment, we turned it over to investigators."

West Virginia has become particularly sensitive to potential scams.

Earlier this year, someone ran up $475,000 on a state licensing board`s phone bill after it mistakenly posted its conference call account codes online. The state`s auditor was also tricked into rerouting nearly $2 million meant for vendors into bank accounts set up by what investigators say is a Kenyan-based fraud ring.

Bureau Report

The FBI was investigating after the governor`s offices in West Virginia, Vermont, Wyoming and Washington state received between three and five laptops — but none had ordered any of them.

"They immediately raised a red flag," said Matt Turner, spokesman for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. "No one said, `Hey, we got a free gift.`"

The laptops were made by Hewlett-Packard or came from its Compaq brand. The world`s leading PC maker said it told law enforcement that it intercepted and turned around similar deliveries ordered for six additional states.

"HP is aware that fraudulent state government orders recently have been placed for small amounts of HP equipment. HP took prompt corrective action to address the fraudulent orders and is working with law enforcement personnel on a criminal investigation," the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company said in a statement, declining further comment.

Hewlett-Packard has contracts to provide computer equipment to most states, including the four that received the unsolicited machines.

Each governor`s office reports that the machines arrived in two separate shipments, the earliest on Aug. 3. Susanne Young, a spokeswoman for Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, said the paperwork with one if its shipments indicated that they had been ordered July 22.

The National Governors Association has issued a bulletin about the suspicious shipments. It also said that Vermont`s laptops were paid for with a credit card issued in Douglas` name — but that was not one actually held by the governor or issued by that state.

Officials in Washington and Wyoming said those computers had been purchased with credit cards whose account numbers did not match any issued by those states. West Virginia State Police Sgt. Mike T. Baylous declined to comment on how the laptops shipped there may have been paid for.

"The State Police and the FBI are working jointly to get to the bottom of why these computers were sent to West Virginia," Baylous said Thursday.

Agent Jay Bartholomew, the FBI`s supervisory senior resident agent in Charleston, declined to comment Thursday.

Frank Dorman, a spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, which watches out for identify theft and other fraud schemes, said he had not heard of such a situation and that a potential beneficiary was not immediately apparent.

But state officials were concerned about what could be lurking inside the laptops.

"I don`t know what`s on them, but I`m assuming we didn`t receive these as a gesture of goodwill," said Kyle Schafer, West Virginia`s chief technology officers. "We take very strong measures to protect ourselves from the outside world."

As a result, none of the governor`s offices report turning on any of the machines. They instead either shipped them back or handed them over to law enforcement.

"Once the first shipment came, we realized they were in error and began the process to send them back to the company," said Cara Eastwood, spokeswoman for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. "When we got the second shipment, we turned it over to investigators."

West Virginia has become particularly sensitive to potential scams.

Earlier this year, someone ran up $475,000 on a state licensing board`s phone bill after it mistakenly posted its conference call account codes online. The state`s auditor was also tricked into rerouting nearly $2 million meant for vendors into bank accounts set up by what investigators say is a Kenyan-based fraud ring.

Bureau Report



First Published: Saturday, August 29, 2009 - 10:08

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