A news release from two consumer advocacy groups last week confirmed what many had long suspected: Fake check scams are the No. 1 telemarketing and Internet fraud.
Like the perpetrators of other fraud, fake check scammers are fine-tuning their schemes all the time. While the basic theme is the same, they’re becoming more sophisticated about tailoring their appeals by age group.
The basic scam involves first creating a phony check and putting it in the hands of the person to be defrauded. Step two is to convince the “mark” either to send back cash — usually in a wire transfer — or to send the money to a third party. In either case, the money is simply stolen.
Let’s look at some of the variations. Say you have a table saw for sale and you’re asking $500 for it. You might get a call or email inquiry from someone who says he has a cashier’s check “all made out for $1,000.” He asks you to cash it, take an extra $75 for your trouble and return the balance of $425 to him in the form of a money order.
There are several problems here. One, the “cashier’s check” may look like the real thing, but it’s bogus. Two, you won’t find out it’s bogus until long after you’ve deposited it (your bank or credit union must credit the deposit within a couple of days; it may take several weeks for the check to go through the system). Three, you’re out the cash you’ve sent, plus the table saw, with nothing to show for it. Four, you may be put on a list of bad risks or even charged with fraud yourself.
If you think you’re a victim of a fake check scam, don’t be embarrassed. Work with your bank or credit union; while it’s often impossible to recover your money, a good faith effort will go a long way toward maintaining your good name.
Other fake check frauds involve work-at-home schemes that never pay. You get charged for materials, supplies and instructions for what appear to be simple items to produce. Despite all your efforts, your work is “not up to our standards,” and you never get paid.
The National Consumers League Fraud Center studied complaints it received from the start of 2008 to mid-2010. The Center found that work-at-home schemes were the top complaint of 18- to 30-year-olds, while people 66 and older were most often targets of sweepstakes frauds — millions in winnings promised, if only the “winner” will send a few thousand dollars to pay taxes, administrative fees or other costs.
Those sweepstakes or other big prize schemes often originate in foreign countries, and they legally can’t offer prizes in the U.S. That doesn’t stop the perpetrators from trying. If you have to pay money to win a prize, it’s a ripoff.
Whatever the scam, the crooks will always ask that the money be sent by wire transfer. It‘s fast, it’s cash and it’s nearly impossible to trace. Once the crooks pick up your money in a wire transfer, you can’t get it back.
So, never wire money to anyone you don’t know well. Make sure it is someone you know, not someone pretending to be a friend in trouble, who “needs money urgently to get out of an unfriendly country” or other nonsense.
If you receive a scam attempt by mail, let a postal inspector know; contact your local post office for details or visit www.deliveringtrust.com. The National Consumer League operates a website specifically on bogus checks, www.fakechecks.org. The Federal Trade Commission also looks for check schemes; find out more at www.ftc.gov.
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, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.