The Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office reported an increase in suspicious activity and scam phone calls in 2020, according to the department's 2020 annual crime statistics report, released this month.

According to the report, sheriff's deputies received 646 calls reporting suspicious activity – which can range from an unknown person or vehicle to objects out of place – in 2020, up from 373 calls in 2019, and up from 149 in 2017, when the department started tracking those calls.

The increase in calls reporting suspicious activity was part of an overall increase in calls for service, according to the report. In 2020, the sheriff's office received 19,965 calls, up from 18,175 the year before. The 9.8% increase was driven in large part by a rise in calls for location checks – in 2020, 3,513 calls for service were for location checks, compared with 653 in 2019.

Grand Forks County Sheriff's Cpt. Joel Lloyd said in the past year, deputies have aimed to be more "proactive" in their patrols, which he credited to the sharp increase in the number of location checks.

"Our deputies have spent a lot of time focusing on the rural areas and being proactive by documenting things like suspicious vehicles or suspicious people, and actually documenting those in reports and logging those," he said. "So that if something were to be reported, later on down the road, we can go back and identify who may have been there."

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While location checks and the overall number of calls for service went up, the majority of types of calls of service actually decreased, including traffic stops, accidents, welfare checks and domestic calls. Lloyd believes the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role.

"COVID could certainly be responsible for some of the things that trended down last year, just for the simple fact that people stayed home," he said. "Our deputies were also using a lot more caution when having contact with the public, both for the safety of the public and for our deputies."

As reports of fraud have risen elsewhere during the pandemic, the sheriff's office also noted there has been an increase in the number of scam calls people have received, asking them to send money over the phone. This prompted the sheriff's office to remind people to use caution when conducting transactions over the phone, particularly when the caller is requesting a credit or debit card number, a prepaid cash card number or a gift card number.

The Grand Forks Police Department also has noted an increase in fraud in the area, particularly fraudulent unemployment claims. GFPD Lt. Derik Zimmel told the Herald it's difficult to know for certain the reason why fraud claims might increase, and Lloyd agreed.

The scam calls they're seeing most frequently are gift card scams, Lloyd said.

"They went up a lot because, unfortunately, right now, they seem to be working," he said. "If you get an unsolicited call that ends up with somebody who you don't know asking for money, to see a payment from any type of money transfer service, or where they want you to read the gift card numbers over the line, the odds are pretty high that you're talking to a scammer. And once you send that money, it's very difficult for us to track it and get it back."