The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

November 23, 2013

Fake checks -- worthless paper but looks real

By Randy Meier
The Clinton Herald

---- — A young Clinton woman recently lost more than $1,800 in a fake check scam. The woman wanted to work, and saw a job posted on an Internet site.

The firm posting the job offer portrayed themselves as a research service located in St. Louis. The firm hired our Clinton applicant as an “undercover customer service evaluator,” and promised her $350 for each store she rated. Another term for this is “mystery shopper.” The firm instructed her to deposit at her bank a check they sent to her, withdraw the deposit in cash, and take it to a Western Union agent.

She received further instructions to wire transfer the money at the Western Union agent to a representative of the research company in Mexico.

The woman did as instructed. When the check arrived, she deposited it and withdrew the cash. She went to a Western Union agent and wire transferred almost $1,500 as instructed. She filled out the “rating/evaluation” form provided by the research service, and sent it on. And one week later, her bank notified her the check she deposited came back as counterfeit. She is liable for the loss, and must re-pay the bank.

There are several lessons to draw from this crime:

n Internet mystery shopper job offers are almost always scams — Wire transfer services such as Western Union and Moneygram are widely used by crooks to steal money in frauds. Remember what I’ve written before — don’t touch the wire.

n If you deposit a check, you are not 100 percent positive about, wait until it clears the bank before withdrawing funds against that check — Fake checks show up in a wide variety of scams. I’ve told people I am working on wallpapering one wall of my office with fake or counterfeit checks folks turn in.

I am making good progress on that project. It is extremely easy to counterfeit a check. You need a color printer, a check writing software program (they are inexpensive) and check stock, which is available at office supply outlets. Anyone can buy blank check stock. It is not a controlled commodity.

Check forgers use the information of legitimate companies or institutions to create very real looking checks.

I wrote about how fake checks showed up in a mystery shopper scam. They also show up in foreign lottery scams, check overpayment scams, Internet and Internet auction scams. In lottery scams, victims get a phone call or mail, telling them they won a foreign sweepstakes or lottery, but need to pay a processing, currency transfer, or insurance fee to move the money into the United States.

To help pay the fee, the scammers send a fake check, with instructions to cash it, and take the cash to a wire transfer service, and send it overseas to pay the fee.

Crooks also frequently reply to classified ads or online auction postings (think Craigslist), offering to buy the advertised items. They send a check written for far more than the purchase price. The scammer asks the seller to send the difference back by wire transfer after depositing the check. If the seller does as instructed, when the check bounces, the seller is left holding the bag for the entire amount.

In all these cases, the consumer will end up losing their money, not the bank. Why is that? The consumer may think, the check looked good, and the bank accepted it, why am I on the hook for the money?

Under federal law, banks must make the first $200 available to you the day after you deposit a check, and the rest must be made available the second business day after the deposit. But just because you deposit the check and the bank took it, does not make it good.

It can take a week or 10 days before a check is returned to your bank as counterfeit. In the meantime, you are responsible for any money you withdraw against that check.

If you receive such a check, I am always happy to help you check it out before you lose any money.

Scam alerts

A Clinton woman sent me copies of several emails she received, which seemed to show them as sent by Mediacom, a local cable and Internet provider. She received these from Oct. 25 through Nov. 15. Although the content varies some, the gist of each email is Mediacom notifies the recipient Mediacom plans to deactivate their email, or upgrade it, or validate it.

The emails require some action by the recipient, either clicking on a link, downloading an attachment, or replying with personal information. All these emails are examples of phishing, meaning they are attempts to steal your personal information, or load up your computer with unwanted and malicious software, by using deceptive practices.

I spoke with a Mediacom representative, who confirmed this email scam is widespread. His advice to Mediacom customers was to immediately delete such emails, and not open them. One clue these are bogus is their return address usually shows as coming from a gmail account.

Count your pills

The Iowa Senior Medicare Patrol, an organization which seeks to prevent Medicare and Medicaid fraud, reported Kmart settled with the U.S. government in October 2013, for $2.5 million. The government alleged Kmart pharmacies gave Medicaid customers only part of their prescriptions, under-filling them, yet billed the government full price.

When you pick up your prescriptions, it is always a good idea to count them, and ensure you are getting what the doctor ordered, and what is paid for. If your count does not agree with what the prescription ordered, contact the pharmacy immediately, and ask to speak to a manager.

You can contact Seniors vs. Crime at 242-9211, ext. 4433, to report any scams or frauds, or similar concerns. I get a great deal of information from folks who call me and let me know what they are seeing and hearing.

Randy Meier is the director of Seniors vs. Crime, which operates in conjunction with the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office.