Charity "Business Opportunity" Could Drain Your Bank Account

Last Updated Apr 10, 2009 3:52 PM EDT

The emailed pitch provides an enticing lure: Make money and help a lauded international charity at the same time. SOS Children's Villages, a 60-year-old charity catering to orphaned and abandoned children around the world, needs "intermediaries" to collect donations and pass the money to an agent in whatever country where it's needed, the email said. You could work from home and keep 10 percent of the money collected. There's just one catch.

"It's a scam," said Heather Paul, chief executive of SOS-USA in Washington, D.C., when I reached her by phone.

The nature of the scheme? Paul couldn't say. The pitch was both new and disturbing to her. The one thing she knows for sure is that SOS has no need to hire anyone to transfer funds. "We have been transferring money across the world for 60 years," she said. "This is unethical and unconscionable."

What's the game? There are two possibilities.

The "money mule" scam
The simplest (and least likely in this case) is that a criminal enterprise is looking for "money mules." These are innocent people who unwittingly launder the proceeds of criminal activity by shooting it through their own bank accounts before transferring it accross state or international borders to a waiting accomplice. About a year ago, a similar money scam offering "work at home" opportunities left a single mom reeling after discovering the online retailer she supposedly worked for was engaged in theft. The company collected money for goods purchased online that they never sent. By being the bogus vendor's financial representative in the U.S., the victimized buyers were able to recover their losses from the single mom's bank account.

In that scam, like this one, the company was offering a 10 percent commission and attempting to lure in people who wanted or needed to work from home.

Yet because SOS doesn't sell anything, this scam is more likely attempting to pass bogus checks -- to you. At least that's the interpretation of Jay Adkisson offered when we spoke earlier this week. He should know. He's a Newport Beach lawyer and editor of Quatloose.com, a Web site that aims to expose fraud.

The fake check scam
The fake check scam works by exploiting U.S. banking laws that demand banks make deposited money "available" within relatively short periods, which gives depositors the impression that a check has "cleared." But that supposedly cleared check can be reversed, and you could be on the hook for the money.

Here's how it works. The scammer tells you that they -- or their donors, in this case -- are going to send you money. To convince you they're legitimate, they'll suggest that you wait until the check "clears" before sending the funds on to them. Then, they'll ask you to send them a check that reflects the amount you collected, minus a commission. If you collected $3,000 in donations, for instance, you'd deduct your 10 percent commission ($300), and send them a personal check for $2,700.

The problem: Your check is good and your bank will hold you accountable for it. Their check is not. So, why did it clear? U.S. banking laws demand that banks clear checks within two to four days, depending on whether the check-issuing bank is local or out-of-state, said Mary Trigg, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo Bank. After that period, the bank releases any hold it may have had on your account for those funds.

Most consumers think that when the hold is released, the bank has determined that the check is good. But, that's not always the case. In some instances, a good forgery can take weeks to discover. When it is, your bank will reverse the credit for the bogus check. The real problem: Your check wasn't a forgery. You willingly wrote a draft for $2,700 and sent it off the con artist. You are legitimately out $2,700.

Sure, you can argue with the bank that it's not fair. But they're going to refer you to law enforcement authorities. (The police and/or the FBI will cluck sympathetically and perhaps file some paperwork. But the money is long gone and not coming back.) The fact is, your real signature is on your real check. That's not the bank's problem. It's yours.

The only wise answer: Recognize the hallmarks of a scam and don't fall for it.

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