Don’t bank on phony checks
by Attorney General Roy Cooper
Promises of easy money can be tempting, especially in a tough job market. Who wouldn’t be happy to get a check for thousands of dollars in the mail? But if the check comes with instructions to cash it and then wire money somewhere, don’t bank on it.
Counterfeit check scams can start with an official-looking letter, a call from a telemarketer, a job offer, or a response to something you’ve posted online, like a resume or an item for sale. In all of these scenarios, you’re asked to deposit the check and then wire the money elsewhere. But the check turns out to be fake, and any money you’ve wired comes out of your own pocket.
There are three main types of counterfeit check scams to watch out for:
The classic counterfeit check scam starts with the news that you’ve just won an unexpected prize of as much as $1 million. Along with the announcement comes a very legitimate looking check that’s supposed to cover taxes and fees on the prize. You’re instructed to deposit the check and then wire the money back to the sweepstakes in order to claim your winnings. After you send the money, the check turns out to be phony—but the scammer already has your money.
Secret Shopper and Payment Processor Scams
Another kind of counterfeit check scam starts with an advertisement, a telemarketing call or an email promising well-paid work as a secret or mystery shopper. If you respond, you’ll get a check to deposit and instructions to wire the money back as a way to evaluate the wire service company. A related scheme claims to offer work as a payment processor for an overseas company. Consumers who respond are sent money orders or checks to deposit and then asked to wire the funds back to the company. In exchange, they’re promised a cut of the money.
One North Carolina consumer recently told my office that she got caught up in this scam after responding to a job posted on Craigslist. She interviewed for the job by online chat and then received an email telling her to expect a check for $2,700. She was told to cash the check, keep $200 as a bonus, purchase software with $400, and wire the remaining $1,100 to someone in San Francisco. Fortunately, her bank spotted the check as a fake and she didn’t lose any money.
In yet another type of counterfeit check scam, scammers respond to people who’ve posted items for sale on websites such as eBay and Craigslist. They claim to be interested in buying the item, then send a certified check for more than the purchase price and ask the seller to wire back the overage. Once again, the checks used in these scams look real but turn out to be fake.
While scams like these have been popular with international fraud rings for years, advances in printing technology mean that crooks can now make very convincing counterfeit checks. Sometimes, the scammers include fraud warnings and consumer protection brochures to make their phony checks more believable. Even banks can have a hard time spotting the checks as fakes because they often use the name and account number of a legitimate company.
My office hears from hundreds of North Carolinians each year about counterfeit checks. We’ve helped negotiate national agreements with Western Union and MoneyGram to make it harder for con artists to use wire services to steal your money.
We’re working with law enforcement across the country and around the world to investigate fraud rings, and we’re making bankers, wire companies and consumers more aware of these scams. When I visit my local bank, they give me a handful of very real looking counterfeit checks that they’ve kept customers from cashing.
Sometimes, we’re able to help consumers before they become a victim. For example, a woman in western North Carolina almost wired $30,000 to scammers in Holland who had sent her counterfeit checks. Fortunately her bank caught onto the scam and persuaded her to call my office instead.
Not all consumers are so lucky. Scam artists’ fake checks sometimes find real victims in North Carolina who lose thousands of dollars.
If you receive what may be a counterfeit check or get a call or letter that looks like one of these scams, don’t respond. Instead, report the scam to my office by calling 1-877-5-NO-SCAM toll-free within North Carolina.