Meet the top ten scams – #1 fake check fraud – National Consumers League

This is part one of our 10-part series taking a closer look at the top scams of 2012. The number one scam reported to NCL’s Fraud Center in 2012 was the fake check scheme. To see an overview of our complete report on the top scams of the year, visit our Web site at

By Sandra Latouff, NCL Public Policy Intern

“Congratulations! You’ve won the lottery!”

“You can earn a large salary just by working at home!”

“Get paid for doing what you love, earn a large salary just for shopping!”

Sounds great, right? There is one catch: all you have to do to get your reward is deposit a check and wire the money to the sender to pay the taxes and fees.

There’s another catch, which consumers aren’t told – The checks are fake and the “great opportunity” is actually a scam that could cost you big-time. On average, consumers who fell victim to these schemes lost an average of more than $2,400! That’s serious cash for most of us.

Scams involving counterfeit or fake checks were the number one scam reported to NCL’s campaign in 2012. The scams comes in a number of variations, including foreign lottery scams, check overpayment scams, internet auction scams, and secret shopper scams, just to name a few.

The scams works like this: a scammer contacts a potential victim, either by email, phone, through the mail, or by some other means. The original communication may or may not include a realistic-looking check made out to the victim. If the victim responds to the outreach, usually by replying to an email or by calling a phone number operated by the scam artist, she is instructed to deposit the check into her personal bank account and wire all or a portion of the proceeds from the check to the scam artist or an accomplice via a money transfer service like MoneyGram or Western Union. The scammer gets cash in hand, often within minutes. Depending on how long it takes the bank to recognize the fake check, the victim may not find out about the fraud until days or weeks later. By that time, the scam artist is long gone and the victim is left owing their bank for the proceeds from the fraudulent check.

Regardless of the type of fake check scam the scammer employs – the “mystery shopper,” the “overpayment,” and the “lottery/sweepstakes winnings” variations are popular – the common thread involves the deposit of a check into a personal bank account and then having money wired to the scammer or a third party, such as a fictional “escrow service.”

It is not unusual for a scam artist to use social persuasion techniques to gain a victim’s trust. When being contacted, the scammer may disclose some personal information such as the victim’s name, address, or email address in an effort to convince their mark that the offer is legitimate. Such personal information is widely available online and does not make the alleged company or organization legitimate or trust-worthy.

Tips to keep in mind:

  • If someone gives you a check or money order and asks you to send money somewhere in return, it’s a scam.
  • If you are asked to pay money to collect lottery or sweepstakes winnings, it’s a scam. If you have really won, you will pay taxes directly to the government after you receive your winnings. Be especially wary of claims that you have won well-known sweepstakes such as Reader’s Digest or Publishers Clearing House.
  • Legitimate mystery shopper or account manager jobs don’t involve using money transfer services to send money. Be especially cautious of offers to mystery shop Western Union or Moneygram locations, or the retail stores that house them, such as Walmart, 7-Eleven, or local drug stores.
  • The check or money order may be fake even if your bank or credit union lets you have the cash. You have the right to get the cash quickly, usually within 1-2 days, but your bank or credit union may not be able to tell if there is a problem with the check or money order until it has gone through the system to the person or company that supposedly issued it. That can take weeks. By the time the fraud is discovered, the crook has pocketed the cash.
  • Even if a consumer is defrauded in a fake check scam, she may still be required to pay the bank back for the losses.

For more tips about avoiding scams involving fake checks, please visit NCL’s campaign site or NCL’s guide “Avoid Fake Check Scams: Five things you should know.” For more information on scammers misusing the Publishers Clearing House name, click here. For more information on the Reader’s Digest fake check scam, click here. Western Union’s Consumer Protection Web site is also a good resource for information on these scams.