The economy is limping toward recovery, but many consumers are still out of work and getting more desperate by the day.
It breaks my heart to hear some of the stories of people doing what they can to make ends meet. It makes me downright angry to hear stories of scammers taking advantage of their desperation to earn a living.
One such scam I’ve been hearing a lot about lately is the counterfeit check scam. The scammers contact the victim with a business proposition. Usually, they claim they need someone to accept and process checks.
Victims are instructed to cash the checks sent to them, take out a small salary and then wire the bulk of the money to, typically, a foreign address.
Victims soon discover that the check was fraudulent and they are now on the hook for the full amount of the check, while the scammers get away with the money.
Woman falls for scam
One local resident told me how she ended up falling for this scam. She was looking for a job so she could help support her family when she saw an advertisement looking for a personal assistant. When she responded to the ad, the scammer told her he was a businessman in California who was looking to expand his business to the Killeen area and needed a personal assistant to represent him.
He sent her a check and asked her to cash the check, take out $400 as her compensation and forward the rest to an orphanage in the Philippines. Delighted at the apparent worthiness of the cause, she did as she was told.
By the time the second check arrived, the woman had caught on to the scam. She said the bank had already recouped the funds from the previous transaction, advising her that the check had been written on a closed account. After returning her $400 “salary,” she still owed the bank more than $1,500.
After the woman refused to deposit the second check, the “businessman” started harassing her with threatening phone calls.
After some digging, she found that the FedEx account being used to send the checks traced back to another company, not the one she had been working with. The account had been hijacked. Before getting caught, the man who initiated the deal disappeared.
Looking back, the woman said she noticed several warning signs — misspellings and poor grammar in his emails, an artificial sense of urgency and a sob story to explain why he couldn’t cash the checks himself.
The woman’s experience could be considered a walk in the park compared to other stories I have heard. One woman in the Dallas area faced money laundering charges after falling for a similar scam. Others have lost a lot more money before they discovered the fraud.
The Better Business Bureau also has received reports of similar scams involving mystery shopping, lotteries or sweepstakes and overpayment. They all involve the scammer sending a check or promising to send a check, but asking for some of the money back to cover anything from taxes and fees to merchandise.
To protect yourself from check scams, BBB offers the following advice:
Never wire money. Any job listing or offer that requires you to wire money, especially to recipients outside the country, is suspicious. Walk away.
Protect your personal information. Don’t give out your bank account, credit card or Social Security numbers to any unsolicited callers, Before providing any information to a potential employer, do your research and verify the job is legitimate.
Don’t trust P.O. boxes. Be suspicious of any employer or company that doesn’t have a bricks-and-mortar street address (not a P.O. Box or website only) and telephone number. Call the phone number listed and ask to speak to someone in the human resources office. While there are hundreds of legitimate online (or “dotcom”) businesses, most job scams work exclusively through email and websites.
Never pay upfront. There is no need to pay for “job leads” or “employment listings.” Legitimate employers will advertise their open positions in easily accessible, free ways.
Start with trust. Go to www.bbb.org to check out any potential employer, and contact those companies using information you verified on your own.
Know where to turn. Report suspicious job offers to the Federal Trade Commission and the attorney general’s office.
Richard Kitterman is executive director of the Better Business Bureau serving Central and South Central Texas. For consumer information, reports on businesses or charities or to file a complaint , go to www.centraltx.bbb.org or call (254) 699-0694.