FORT KENT, Maine — When something looks too good to be true, it’s a pretty safe bet it is.
If anyone needs reminding, Kenneth Michaud, Fort Kent’s chief of police, has an inches-thick folder of examples on file representing more than $2 million in fraudulent checks and money orders.
Grants for home repairs, sweepstakes prizes, bonuses from banks and special incentive payments have been showing up in more and more area mailboxes throughout the summer.
“Over the last couple of months these have really started to come in,” Michaud said. “I’m getting calls all the time.”
In one instance, an individual received an official bank money order for $3,500 as a “free gift.”
The individual deposited the check into his bank account and drew out the money. Not long after, he and his bank learned the check was bogus.
In another scam, a local business received an out-of-town order for a piece of garden equipment and the payment was made by check.
“The check was made out for too much money and the guy asked the seller to send him a money order for the balance overpaid along with what he ordered,” Michaud said. “Turns out his check was no good, so now this local businessman is out not only a weed-whacker but the difference [in price] he sent.”
Perhaps the most egregious example of the scams-by-mail involves a 78-year-old retired woman originally from Connecticut, now living in St. Francis, New Brunswick, just across the border from Fort Kent.
According to Michaud, the woman received word by mail that she had won $1 million through a U.S. prize-granting agency. All she had to do to claim her prize was prepay the taxes on her windfall.
Before anyone caught on to what was happening, Michaud said, the woman had purchased and sent a series of money orders ranging in amounts from $1,000 to $2,500 to another woman in Texas, as instructed by the bogus prize company.
“We had to tell the business in town selling money orders to stop selling them to her,” Michaud said. “Then, anytime she came in looking to buy one, they’d call me.”
Michaud said he would try to explain to the woman the $1 million was a hoax and a scam designed to take her money.
“She didn’t believe me,” Michaud said.
In the end, Michaud said, her family in Connecticut was forced to take control of the woman’s finances, but not before the scam drained her entire savings account.
In the course of the investigation, Michaud learned the woman in Texas receiving the checks was also a victim of the scam.
“This woman would deposit the checks in Texas, write a check from her account and send it to a person in Jamaica,” Michaud said. “Then the person in Jamaica was supposed to send her a percentage back as payment.”
That, Michaud said, never happened.
Scammers, Michaud said, are becoming more sophisticated all the time.
He described another ongoing scam in which the perpetrator buys a legitimate money order for $500. After waiting a few days, he returns to the place of purchase and reports the money order lost or stolen and the provider then voids it.
The scammer, who has retained the original money order, is then free to send it off to some unsuspecting person as payment for what appears to be a legitimate purchase — as in the case of the weedwhacker.
Even Michaud himself is apparently not immune from the scammers.
“I got a call from someone who told me since I had not used my credit card for a long time I had to give them the PIN number on the back so they could reactivate it,” he said. “I told them no and they insisted it was OK since they had my full credit card number.”
Michaud said he has tried his best with the limited resources in his department to investigate all the check and money order frauds that have come across his desk.
“These look like real checks [and] most are coming out of New York or Jamaica,” Michaud said. “People are getting fooled.”
The bogus checks are often accompanied by contact letters printed on official-looking letterheads, complete with return addresses and phone numbers.
Michaud said he tried calling one of the numbers and the individual who answered on the other end had a very thick accent and told Michaud, “I’m just the cleaning man,” before hanging up.
In the short time it took Michaud to redial the number, it had been disconnected.
Michaud has called his counterparts in Texas and also contacted state and federal agencies that target scams on the elderly.
“They just don’t have the time to deal with it all,” he said.
What it comes down to, Michaud said, is the individual consumer must be vigilant.
“When it’s too good to be true, it is,” Michaud said. “If you get a check in the mail for $3,500 and no one owes you $3,500, don’t think Santa Claus has come to town.”