Thursday, September 07, 2006

Counterfeit Cashier's Checks Fuel Internet Crime

Tom Fragala - Truston Identity Theft Blog - and I were talking about how counterfeit cashier's checks have become a long-term problem in the world of Internet crime.

It's often difficult to verify that a check is counterfeit. They often use valid account numbers, which verify (easily) in the computerized telephone systems that most banks use today. Quite simply, unless the bank or the account owner is aware of that their account is being counterfeited - the item will appear to be legitimate.

Furthermore -- a lot of banks have taken the stance in recent years -- that they will not verify whether a check is good, or not. It's getting harder all the time to verify checks with banks.

The lottery, auction, work-at-home (check cashing), romance, advance fee (419) and secret shopper scams all have a common theme -- they often use counterfeit cashiers checks to lure victims into negotiating the item and wiring the money off to some far-away location.

The fraudsters often request that you use Western Union, or MoneyGram to wire money to them. They are also known to use wire transfers services offered by banks. Once the money is picked up (normally very quickly in scams), the sender has very little, or no recourse.

The golden rule is to never wire money to people you don't know, or only know from the Internet.

To understand why Internet fraudsters prefer counterfeiting these instruments, one can refer to the legal definition of a cashier's check (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Under Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code, a cashier's check is effective as a note of the bank. Also, according to Regulation CC (Reg CC) of the Federal Reserve, cashier's checks are recognized as "guaranteed funds" and amounts under $5000 are not subject to deposit holds, except under certain circumstances.

To the person receiving the item, they appear as if they are guaranteed by the bank and if the check is under $5,000.00 - there is no hold on the funds. The fraudsters know this and it will normally be 7-10 days before their victim discovers that anything is wrong.

There was a recent story circulating in the press about a "seemingly cautious gentleman," who decided to have his bank examine the item before he went forward with an auction deal. The bank told him the item was good (twice) and he deposited it. Several days later, while reviewing his online statement, he discovered that this wasn't the case and the bank had withdrawn the funds.

In the article, the bank blamed "Reg CC," because they are unable to hold the funds. Not completely true, an exception can be made if they have reason to believe the item can't be collected. The item may also be sent in as a collection versus depositing it in the account.

Nonetheless, in this instance, the bank had little to no liability because the item was counterfeit.

To illustrate, the amount of this activity, the FDIC sends out alerts on counterfeit cashier's checks. If you would like to see how many alerts -- they've issued recently (scary) -- link here.

Here are some things a person can do to see if a cashier's check is fraudulent:

If someone is asking you to wire money back to them - it's more than likely a scam.

Review the security features of a cashier's check. Despite the "booming" make your own check industry, some of the items out there are pretty amateur. Wikipedia has a good reference on the security features, here.

Review recent FDIC alerts - in a lot of cases, a warning has already been issued.

Verify the check with the issuing institution. Although this isn't 100 percent effective in the case of a counterfeit, they can normally verify certain items; like the ABA/account number, payee, check number, date of issuance, authorized signer and amount.

When you call the bank, never use the number printed on the check. Quite often - phony numbers with phony employees are set up to verify these items. Get the bank's number from a website, or telephone directory. Using 411 (information) might not be the best way to verify a number. Recently, there have been phony numbers set up that verify through - and reverse - through 411.

Since, there are also a lot of phony bank sites out there, if you use the Internet, TrustWatch is a good option for a search engine. TrustWatch will show you via a "coded coloring system," whether the site is verified to be legitimate, or not.

In some instances, good cashier's checks are copied, which defeats verifying the item by telephone. Once the counterfeit item is cashed, the fraudster negotiates the good item and the counterfeit is returned. This is also seen (occasionally) with counterfeit money orders.

If you are still uncomfortable after talking to the bank - ask to speak to a supervisor, or even better - someone in the fraud department. Ask if you can fax them a copy of the item for them to look at. A good way to do this - is to tell them you have a reason to suspect fraud.

Scams that involve, counterfeit cashier's checks, always represent something that is too good to be true. If this is the case, it probably is.


Anonymous said...

I just had this happen to me from a company that is on the Internet called 'Retail Evaluation Service'. When I took it to the bank both tellers looked at the check & the one even said he could see the watermark slightly. They cashed 2 of these checks for a total of $3,500 and, even though I did not deposit this money, they took it out of my checking account. I am trying to get it returned, but not having much success. A very pricey lesson learned on my part.

Ed Dickson said...

Some of these counterfeits are high quality and have security features and magnetic ink.

All of these are for sale - at Office Supply stores and on the Internet.

There is no subsitute for verifying a check with the issuing instituation and or preferably the maker (issuer) of the item.

Anonymous said...

i just had this happen to me today i can't believe were here in the UNITED STATES and no one could help us with this i don't think it's fair to make us pay for this, the weird thing is that if it would to happen to a big company they would do something about it!
I believe it's the banks resposability to check befor cashing the cheques.

Anonymous said...

This just happened to me today. I feel so foolish to buy into this scam. I am now -$2,000. I'm scared to go to my bank and try to fight this. Has anyone gotten their money back? I do think it's unfair that the bank approved it and now I'm responsible for the fraudulent amount, plus return fees and overdraft charges. I really don't know what to do at this point. Wish I read this thread before I did that. Mine was a job from Craigslist to help this guy named, Richard Hotz. So, so, so stupid... :(