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Fake check scams getting better

8/19/2010 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Cynthia Sich, director of the Summit County Office of Consumer Affairs, said check scams have been going on for about a decade but are getting better. This check provided by a local reader shows how scammers try to make checks look legitimate.
GREATER AKRON — Fake check scams aren’t going away. Actually, they’re getting more and more sophisticated.

Cynthia Sich, director of the Summit County Office of Consumer Affairs, said check scams, which often make the recipient think they are the winner of a sweepstakes, have been going on for about a decade. But Sich has noticed that scammers are getting better at their trade.

“The checks are better than what they were before,” she said. “Some of the checks actually use actual banks. They get the city and state right but usually get the address wrong.”

Sich said her office recently saw a check that was supposedly issued by New York City’s Comptroller’s Office.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen a government entity,” on a fake check, she said.

Sich said some citizens have brought checks to her office to verify if they are fake. She keeps some of them, blocking out the recipients name, so she can bring them to groups and show them how real the checks look.

Sich said she and her staff are happy to take a look at a check. Banks cannot tell you if a check is good or not, but usually tellers can tell whether a check is suspicious, she said.

“I’m sure many consumers have been saved by their bank tellers,” Sich said.

Even with that, some consumers will insist the check be cashed and the tellers must do what their customer wants, Sich added.

A local resident who recently received a fake check in the mail provided the check to the West Side Leader. Accompanying the check was a letter congratulating the recipient on winning a sweepstakes prize of $125,000.

The check was made out in the amount of $4,450, and the letter stated that amount would be deducted from the total winnings.

Also in the letter, the “winner” was told to first call a “claims agent” at a long-distance number with a Vancouver, British Columbia, area code.

“NOTE: Please do not act on this letter until you speak with your claims agent,” the letter reads.

Sich said the reason scammers want the recipient to call first is because someone involved with the scam will advise them to avoid using a bank teller, since so many of them can recognize the checks as a scam, and instead use an ATM.

If the recipient does call, they will be asked to deposit the check and then wire part of it to a particular account. When the check is eventually determined to be fake, the consumer will be responsible to their bank for the amount they wired in addition to fees and penalties.

One case Sich’s office offers as an example is that of a local woman who received a money order and wired $900 as instructed. The money order was counterfeit, so the woman was then responsible to the check-cashing business she used for the money she wired and all related fees and penalties.

While Sich’s office and others have continued to warn the public about the scams, she said they don’t show any signs of letting up. And people will continue to fall victim in part because of human nature, she said.

“You watch TV and you see someone winning the lottery,” Sich said. “People do win things, and part of us is we want that to be us, especially if you just lost your job or face foreclosure.”

Also, sometimes the scammers use legitimate company names like Reader’s Digest or Publishers Clearing House, which can sway the recipient into thinking their winnings are for real.

She added that vulnerable consumers are often targeted for the scams.

“Some in the population might have early stages of dementia, and they may not understand clearly what’s going on,” Sich said.

It’s not always older adults that are targeted, though. Sich said one local 18-year-old received a fake check and his mother intervened and contacted Sich’s office.

“We can’t remind consumers enough,” Sich said. “Now more than ever consumers need to use due diligence.”

What should you do if you receive one of these checks in the mail? If you have no question that it’s a scam, Sich suggested shredding it. If you’re not sure, contact Sich’s office at 330-643-2879 or go to the website www.co.summit.oh.us/conaffairs.htm.

Additional information can be found at www.fakechecks.org, a website created by the National Consumers League.

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