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How to Spot, Avoid and Report Fake Check Scams

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In a fake check scam, a person you don’t know asks you to deposit a check— sometimes for several thousand dollars, and usually for more than you are owed — and send some of the money to another person. The scammers always have a good story to explain why you can’t keep all the money. They might say they need you to cover taxes or fees, you’ll need to buy supplies, or something else.

Fake checks come in many forms. They might look like business or personal checks, cashier’s checks, money orders, or a check delivered electronically. Here’s what you need to know about fake check scams.

Types of Fake Checks Scams

Fake checks are used in many types of scams. Here are some examples:

  • Mystery shopping. Scammers pretend to hire people as mystery shoppers and tell them their first assignment is to evaluate a retailer that sells gift cards, money orders, or a money transfer service, like Western Union or MoneyGram. The shopper gets a check with instructions to deposit it in a personal bank account and wire it to someone else. But once the money is wired, the person on the other end can disappear.
  • Personal assistants. People apply online and get hired as personal assistants. They get a check and are told to use the money to buy gift cards or to buy equipment or supplies for their new client. Once the scammers get the gift card PIN numbers, they use them instantly, leaving the “personal assistant” without the money when the bank figures out the check is bad.
  • Car wrap decals. People interested in car wrap advertising are told to deposit checks and send money to decal installers — who don’t exist.
  • Claiming prizes. Sweepstakes “winners” are given checks and told to send money to cover taxes, shipping and handling charges, or processing fees. But that’s not how legitimate sweepstakes work.
  • Overpayments. People buying something from you online “accidentally” send a check for too much and ask you to refund the balance.

Why Do These Scams Work?

These scams work because fake checks generally look just like real checks, even to bank employees. They are often printed with the names and addresses of legitimate financial institutions. They may even be real checks written on bank accounts that belong to identity theft victims. It can take weeks for a bank to figure out that the check is a fake.

Fake Checks and Your Bank

By law, banks have to make deposited funds available quickly, usually within two days. When the funds are made available in your account, the bank may say the check has “cleared,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a good check. Fake checks can take weeks to be discovered and untangled. By that time, the scammer has any money you sent, and you’re stuck paying the money back to the bank.

Your best bet: Don’t rely on money from a check unless you know and trust the person you’re dealing with.

How to Avoid a Fake Check Scam

  • Never use money from a check to send gift cards, money orders, or wire money to strangers or someone you just met. Many scammers demand that you send money through money transfer services like Western Union or MoneyGram, or buy gift cards and send them the PIN numbers. Once you wire money, or give someone the gift card PINs, it is like giving someone cash. It’s almost impossible to get it back.
  • Toss offers that ask you to pay for a prize. If it’s free, you shouldn’t have to pay to get it.
  • Don’t accept a check for more than the selling price. You can bet it’s a scam.

What to Do If You Sent Money to a Scammer

Gift cards are for gifts, not payments. Anyone who demands payment by gift card is always a scammer. If you paid a scammer with a gift card, tell the company that issued the card right away. When you contact the company, tell them the gift card was used in a scam. Ask them if they can refund your money. If you act quickly enough, the company might be able to get your money back. Also, tell the store where you bought the gift card as soon as possible.

Here is a list of gift cards that scammers often use — with information to help report a scam. If the card you used is not on this list, you might find the gift card company’s contact information on the card itself, or you might need to do some research online.

If you wired money to a scammer, call the money transfer company immediately to report the fraud and file a complaint. You can reach the complaint department of MoneyGram at 1-800-MONEYGRAM (1-800-666-3947) or Western Union at 1-800-325-6000. Ask for the money transfer to be reversed. It’s unlikely to happen, but it’s important to ask.

If you paid a scammer with a money order, contact the company that issued the money order right away to see if you can stop payment. Also, try to stop delivery of the money order: if you sent it by U.S. mail, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at 877-876-2455. Otherwise, contact whatever delivery service you used as soon as possible. 

Where to Report Fraud

If you think you’ve been targeted by a fake check scam, report it to:

Fake Check Scams Infographic

Fake Check Scams Infographic