Fake Check Alert: How to Sidestep the Scam

Last Updated Jul 23, 2009 2:18 PM EDT

No one has tried to give Thomas Silvia a fake check, but he knows all about the fake check scams that have been sweeping the country and seem to be particularly targeting "mystery shoppers." That's because a bunch of the forged checks have his company's name on them.

In the months since someone got hold of one of his company's checks and reproduced it, he's spent hours trying to warn consumers, banks and law enforcement about the scam. He kindly agreed to be interviewed to give my readers a better glimpse at how this scam works and how you can avoid getting taken.

It's not hard to see why people get conned, he said. These fake checks look real. They're on quality paper. They appear to be issued by real companies. If they're deposited in a bank, it can literally take months--long after the check appears to "clear"--before the bank discovers the fake and debits the victim's account. In fact, only two things differentiate them from the real checks Silvia's company issues: There are often phone numbers on the check that don't ring at his company's offices; and they're signed by people Silvia has never heard of. Those, unfortunately, are not things that the typical consumer would know.

The only way a recipient of one of these checks is going to know it's bogus is to look the issuing company up on the Internet and call the number that's listed there. (Silvia doesn't want to publish the name of his firm for fear of being unjustly besmirched by a scam that victimizes his company as much as consumers.) If a check recipient calls Silvia's firm, they're likely to get Silvia and an earful of advice--and some frustration.

Silvia has become outraged by how little attention is being paid to this scam. He's called the FBI, which told him that unless the victims were losing more than $300,000, they weren't interested. He's called Western Union, which is how the con artists get their take. They urge their victims to cash the bogus checks and wire a portion of the proceeds to them through Western Union. Silvia said he can't even reach Western Union's fraud department. He's called the local police, the Postal authorities and a joint task force that works with the FBI and the Canadian law enforcement. (Phone numbers on several fake checks Silvia has received are Canadian.) No one has been interested enough to pursue any type of enforcement action.

He's even called banks that have attempted to clear the bogus checks. When Silvia received a check from one California bank that was attempting to clear it, in fact, he spent hours trying to warn the bank that they were being scammed. The bank transferred his call a dozen times but didn't take any significant action. Two months later, Silvia said he got a call from the same bank asking about the same check he'd attempted to warn them about. It turns out that the consumer who deposited the check had closed his account before the bank determined the check was bogus. The bank was out $40,900, as a result.

Silvia has even called the fake phone numbers listed on the checks. Most are never answered. But in one instance, he got a representative who called himself "Dean." Dean said he'd been hired by this company that had another 15 employees. Fake checks are big business.

"I attempted to put a guilt trip on him for taking advantage of people who can't afford to loose this money and he said he was going to quit," Silvia said. "Right! I tried to get the name of this business but he was not forthcoming."

If you get a check for more than the amount you're owed, be smart. Use your own resources to find the company that supposedly issued it and call. It may save you thousands of dollars and an incredible headache. If you want more information on this scam go to fakechecks.org, which is an informational site operated by consumer groups that are trying to bring more awareness to the problem in the hope of saving vulnerable people from getting taken.

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