BEWARE OF FAKE CHECKS
You have responded to a work‑at‑home offer in which you will be an account manager for a foreign company, depositing checks from its U.S. customers. It seems simple: You deposit the checks, take your pay out of them, and send the remainder to the foreign company. Or . . . you have reason to believe you have won a sweepstakes or lottery prize. You receive a check for your winnings, with instructions to cash it, then return a portion of the money to cover taxes or other fees. Or . . . having sold something through a newspaper ad or online, you receive a check for much more than the purchase price. Calling it an accounting error, the buyer apologizes for the mistake and asks that you return the excess amount.
If these scenarios activate your fraud antennae, there is a good reason for that. Each is a typical example of circumstances in which people are victimized by fake checks. This is a growing problem, perhaps because of the ways in which strangers are brought together for transactions by new technologies and the Internet. If there is a single best piece of advice for not becoming a victim, it is to accept no check if it is accompanied by a request that you return some of the money.
Of course, the sting from the scam occurs when the victim deposits the check he receives, then withdraws funds and sends off money or merchandise before his bank discovers that the deposited check is fraudulent. Even when the bank is vigilant, that discovery could take days, or even weeks. Your first reaction might be to blame the bank, but, generally, the depositor is on the hook, as he is considered to have taken responsibility for the funds spent or sent before the fraud is discovered.
In addition to the big red flag in the form of being asked to return part of the money sent by check to you, here are some more warning signs and protective measures:
• Upon receiving a check from a stranger, explain the situation to your bank manager and ask the manager when the check is likely to be considered “good.” Then wait until you get the go‑ahead before using the funds. If, in the meantime, the check writer pesters you about the delay, that may just be one more sign that you were targeted to be a fake check victim.
• Scam artists are often clever and skillful, making it difficult to detect a false check from the check itself. This makes it all the more important to pay attention to, and to be guided by, suspicious circumstances. Some of these include offers that defy common sense (if you really won a prize, wouldn’t they just deduct taxes or fees from the check for your winnings?); being asked to send money outside of the U.S. (thus making it harder to find the culprit and the money); and being warned not to discuss the transaction with anyone else.
• Consider accepting payment not by personal check, but only in the form of a money order or a cashier’s check drawn on a local bank, so that you can take it there to ensure that it is legitimate. Another option is a money order from the U.S. Postal Service.
• Especially when dealing with a stranger over the Internet, try to confirm the person’s name, address, home phone number, and work number through some independent means, such as directory assistance or an online database.
If the worst happens, and you have reason to believe that you have been had by the writer of a fake check, contact your bank and the local office of the FBI. Then resolve to keep an eye out for the red flags next time.