How to Spot Bogus Documents and Fake Check Scams

Look for these crooked clues to identify fake check scams and other phony documents: Internet Scambusters #387

Can you spot fake check scams or phony documents when they drop into your mailbox?

In this week’s issue, we show you some of the most common mistakes crooks make when they send forged payments or checks drawn on a non-existent bank.

And we highlight some of the tell-tale signs that a letter or other document you received may be bogus.

And now for the main feature…

How to Spot Bogus Documents and Fake Check Scams

Fake check scams arrive in your mailbox as part of another con trick — like an advance fee fraud or a phony payment for something you sold online.

Hopefully, Scambusters subscribers already know never to cash a check that arrives out of the blue, and certainly never to wire part of the payment to someone else. If you’re not sure on this, read more about advance fee scams on our site: SCAM: The Nigerian Advance Fee Scheme.

But this week we want to pass on some further tips that can help you spot not only fake checks but other bogus documents that may turn up in your mailbox as part of a scam. Let’s start with the checks.

Suspect Checks

A fake check scam may involve either a phony check, usually created on a PC and home printer, or a genuine check that’s been stolen and forged.

Here are some things you can do to avoid becoming a victim:

* Ensure the check number (usually top right) is the same as the last digits on the line at the bottom of the check (called the MICR Line) and that the signature bears some resemblance to the name of the payer.

* The first, nine-digit part of the MICR line is called the routing number. It identifies the bank that issued the check.

* A favorite trick of fake check scam artists is to use the routing number of a bank on the other side of the country from where the victim lives; that way it takes longer — up to a couple of weeks — to identify the fraud. So, again, be wary when this happens.

* Staying with that MICR line, scrutinize the actual typeface/font used. Compare it with the font on the same line in your own checkbook. If it’s different, the check is probably a dud.

* See if it has perforations. If not, it was done on a home printer. That doesn’t necessarily make it a fake — plenty of people use PC check software — but it should at least arouse suspicions.

* Look for signs that the signature or some other element of the check has been altered or tampered with — especially the printed payer’s name/address.

Stains around handwritten areas suggest the original signature, sum or name of the recipient may have been erased and replaced.

* If in any doubt, track down and phone the issuing bank to confirm the check is genuine.

* If you do deposit a check from someone you don’t know, or whose financial stability you’re unsure of, don’t take any cash on it until it is cleared. You can ask the bank to let you know when this happens.

Banks often can’t immediately tell if a check you deposit is genuine but they have a legal obligation to give you cash, usually within 1 to 5 days, if you ask for it. If the check subsequently turns out to be fake, you’ll have to pay back the cash to the bank.

If the check is payment for something you sold, don’t hand over the item until the check has cleared. Make this a condition of sale to the buyer. To speed things up, ask them to pay with a check drawn either on a local bank, or a bank with a branch in your locality.

Here are a couple of useful sources for more information about fake check scams.

Facts for Consumers: Giving the Bounce to Counterfeit Check Scams

Consumer Advisory: Avoiding Cashier’s Check Fraud

Bogus Documents

The most common giveaways in bogus documents are misspellings (look out for these in checks too) or poor grammar. You can learn more about this from our earlier issue covering scam language: Know the Lingo — How to Get Wise to Scam Language.

A few other signals to look out for in letters you receive include:

* They get your name wrong or use a vague salutation, like “Dear Friend.”

* They give only a PO Box number for an address, with no street information. If there’s also no phone number or email/website address, be suspicious and check them out extremely carefully.

* Scammers also use false addresses and phone numbers. Check them out in the phone book.

* If the document purports to be from a company, check them online, with state and local government business licensing departments, and with other local agencies in the area where they’re supposed to be located.

* Plastering documents with logos of genuine, official organizations make it look like these outfits endorse the sender. Best rule is to disregard these entirely.

* Disclaimers and other important information about fees are often hidden in the fine print. Always read the fine print!

Our Two Golden Rules

If you follow our two golden rules for suspicious documents, you should never lose money because of them:

* A letter from someone you don’t know that says you’ve won money in a competition or lottery you didn’t enter is always a scam.

* If a letter asks for personal, confidential information like your Social Security number or bank account details, that too is a scam. Legitimate organizations just don’t operate this way.

As always, we urge you to be skeptical with any documents and payments that come from unfamiliar sources. Combine this with a healthy dose of common sense and you’ll avoid those bogus documents and fake check scams.

That’s all we have for today, but we’ll be back next week with another issue. See you then!