That big check in your mailbox may be a scam

Posted March 29, 2009, at 6:45 p.m.

Open the mail, find a check … and throw it in the shredder.

Odds are it’s a bogus check.

Think about it: Why would some person or company you likely never heard of send you a check for up to $5,000 in the first place? And why would the sender allow you to keep several hundred dollars of that check “for just a couple of hours of your time”?

The answer: It’s a scam. It benefits only the scammer and leaves you hundreds or thousands of dollars in the hole.

There are variations on the theme, but most of these “advance check” schemes work about the same way. You receive an official-looking check in the mail; your name and address are printed right on it; the paper is of good quality with watermarks and maybe a gold seal for good measure.

It’s still worthless.

Most often the sender asks you to deposit the check, then act as a “mystery shopper,” visiting a Western Union or MoneyGram outlet (often both). You are instructed to wire a portion of the money from the check back to the sender; this is just a way to check out the cash-transferring business’s customer service, the letter accompanying the check tells you. The letter further states you can spend the remainder of the check at another business and keep what you buy as a reward.

What the letter doesn’t say is it’s all a house of cards. There is no money backing up the check, and when the bank finds out, you’ll have to pay for those wire transfers (money you have no hope of getting back).

Let’s look closely at that check. It looks and feels real: good paper with security features, official-looking company name logo, and a hefty amount — almost always under $5,000 first time around — and your name and address (fresh from some mailing list) on the check. How, you wonder, could you be so lucky?

How, indeed. You are among the “lucky” thousands (more likely millions) of people worldwide receiving similar letters and checks, all of them forged and worthless. If the senders get a response from just a fraction of those mailings, every dollar they receive from those wire transfers is clear profit. The reason: Other than the cost of paper and mailing, they never had any money invested to begin with.

Banks can hold funds from out-of-state banks for short periods. But federal law says they can’t hold them more than five days, and that may be barely enough time for a legitimate check to clear. It may take several weeks to determine a check is bogus and, again by law, the depositor is held accountable for any funds withdrawn against that bogus check.

A Rockland woman faces charges of forgery and negotiating a worthless instrument after cashing checks totaling $40,000. Detective Russell Thompson, who is investigating the case, notes that many such offers are postmarked in Canada. “I know one person in Canada,” he quipped, adding that recipients should suspect such out-of-country offers.

The best advice on such unsolicited mailings comes from Lloyd LaFountain III, superintendent of Maine’s Bureau of Financial Institutions, which regulates banks. “Don’t be in a race to deposit a check and send money to someone you don’t know,” he advises.

While the lure of easy money is strong, LaFountain says, the adage “If it sounds too good to be true, it is” still applies. In a period of serious economic uncertainty, he adds, “people really need to know who they’re doing business with.”

LaFountain says people with problems may reach Ann Beane, the bureau’s consumer affairs specialist, at Ann.P.Beane@maine.gov, by calling the bureau at 800-965-5235 in-state, or by writing to the Bureau of Financial Institutions, 36 State House Station, Augusta 04333.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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