Beware of some checks in the mail

People lose thousands when they deposit fraudulent check, remit money

Wrong.

Nearly one-third of American consumers have been targets of some variation of fake check scams, according to a recent survey by Consumer Federation of America. Millions fall for them, leaving the typical sucker with $3,000 to $4,000 in losses.

“People in any state, any walk of life, any level of education are vulnerable to these scams,” said Susan Grant, CFA’s director of consumer protection. “The key is to prevent consumers from being victimized by giving them the information they need at the very point where they may be at risk.”

Last week, CFA, along with the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs, Georgia Bankers Association and Georgia Credit Union Affiliates launched a statewide program to prevent Georgians from becoming victims of fake check scams.

Under the program, banks and credit unions will give CFA-produced brochures explaining how the scams work to consumers who deposit checks or make withdrawals of at least $1,000. CFA has also supplied financial institutions with training materials for their tellers and employees. So far, 60 banks and credit unions have signed on.

‘More believable’

“The fake check scams have been around for a long time,” said Joe Brannen, president and CEO of the Georgia Bankers Association. “They are becoming more and more believable every day.”

Just ask Eden Kelly of Atlanta. Earlier this year, Kelly was contacted by a company that found his résumé on CareerBuilders.com. The company hired Kelly, 44, who had been laid off from his job, to be a “mystery shopper,” which entailed him going to Walmart and rating the retailer’s service.

It sent him a check for more than $3,000. He was to cash it and spent $100 on merchandise. He was to check out Walmart’s MoneyCenter by wiring the rest of the funds to another mystery shopper. But the next day, the company had disappeared and Kelly was on the hook with his bank when the check turned out to be phony.

Kelly said everything appeared to be on the up and up. He even filled out tax documents. “I didn’t think about the process so much. I was just excited to get a job,” he said.

Fake check scams come in all shapes and sizes but typically work like this:

Consumers receive authentic-looking checks or money orders as partial payment for lottery winnings, work-at-home jobs, government grants, etc. They are asked to wire money for taxes, processing fees or other bogus reasons to collect the remainder of the funds.

Consumers, not the scam artists, are the ones on the line when the checks or money orders turn out to be phonies. If consumers can’t cover the funds, banks and credit unions take the hit but may pursue lawsuits or charges against their scammed customers.

Hard to recover losses

Almost 60 percent of consumers surveyed by the CFA incorrectly thought that financial institutions verify that the checks or money orders are legitimate before cashing them. Many consumers thought they would not be held financially responsible for counterfeits.

Consumers who wire money to scam artists, especially those operating outside the United States, are unlikely to recover their losses.

“When these scam artists are located in foreign countries, there is absolutely no way Georgia authorities can pursue them and help these victims get their money back,” said Anne Infinger, deputy administrator for the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs.

The tough economic times have made consumers even more vulnerable to these scams, Infinger said.

“You have a lot of really bright, enterprising people who have been laid off from jobs, trying to find a new way to earn money,” she said. “If they have filled out a grant application, and they get a letter in the mail, they don’t realize that this is just one of many letters sent out by a scamster on a fishing expedition.”

Lottery scams still persist, she said. “The elderly tend to fall for these more than other people,” she said.

“Bottom line, people need to understand that there is simply no legitimate reason why anyone who wants to give you money would be asking you to send money anywhere in return.”

Have a tip or idea about government waste, consumer rip-offs or threats to your health and safety? Contact the AJC at spotlight@ajc.com or 404-526-5041.

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