Caveat venditor! (Let the seller beware)
EAGLE-VAIL – The check is still sitting on my desk, and it’s still something of a bummer that I can’t go cash it. It’s made out to me in the amount of $25,000.64, drawn on a real bank in Florida called Campus Credit Union. It was sent to me by someone who’d seen the ad I placed in the Vail Daily to sell my car. The e-mail, from “Tom Cole,” said he’d send me a check for about $6,000 more than I was asking for my car. After I cashed it, I could then just wire him the difference.Simple, eh? I told him I wasn’t interested, that I’d read about such scams before but, if he wanted to send me the check here at the newspaper, I’d be happy to do a story about it. So here it is:Tom Cole probably doesn’t exist, the cashier’s check mailed to me from out of the country showed up a few weeks later but no one ever contacted me about picking up the car. Funny – where I come from, $25,000.64 is a lot of money. “They’re generated in Nigeria,” said a bored-sounding Campus Credit Union spokeswoman who didn’t want to give her name. “Someone figured out how to copy our checks, and they went on our Web site to get our routing number.”The Secret Service, she said, is looking into it, but chances are the fake car buyers will never be found. Had I been foolish enough to deposit the check and wired the money out of the country, I could have kissed the $6,000 good-bye. That’s what Steve Baker of the Federal Trade Commission in Chicago told me.”People harbor the misperception that only stupid people fall for this stuff,” Baker said. “But with a cashier’s check, it looks good, the bank takes it, it seems good and then they wire the money. Then the bank comes back and says it’s no good, and we’re holding you responsible.”It’s nearly impossible, Baker said, to even estimate how much money is stolen in this manner – although the problem is definitely growing. Many people are too embarrassed to even report it once they realize they’ve been taken.
And while the scams may come in slightly different flavors, he said the common denominator is a big-ticket item available to search for on the Internet: cars, boats, horses, vacation rentals, even jobs. People get contacted about a job and are told their first payment for work is on the way; they just need to wire the difference back.”Anytime they want to pay your for something more than you’ve asked, it’s a huge red flag,” Baker said, adding that money wired out of the country is almost impossible to recover. Un-classifiedsWith most newspaper putting their classified listings online, it’s reasonable to say that no area of the country is safe from Internet scam artists. Christine Schriock, classified director for Colorado Mountain News Media (which owns this newspaper), said the company is aware of some scams targeting classified advertisers or respondents.”Overall I think we have a pretty smart readership that knows about these scams,” Schriock said. “But there are so many different kinds of scams that it’s hard to warn people about all of them.”The bottom line, she said, is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A little checking and a healthy dose of skepticism, she said, can protect consumers from fraud.Pat Robertson, who handles fraud and security issues for Alpine Bank, said they see fraudulent checks every day – in amounts up to several hundred thousand dollars.
“Very few people are suspicious of them, which is unfortunate,” Robertson said, adding that greater consumer awareness of the problem is starting to reduce losses. But, she said, even smart people get taken.”We had one customer who got one of these big checks, and they contacted him and told him there was a mistake, that they’d paid him too much for some services,” Robertson said. “He wired them the $19,000.”Ouch.’You want cash’In Vail, police say they’ve had a dozen or so reports of bogus checks, but all of them were discovered before an attempt was made to deposit the money.”Unfortunately it’s worth (the scammers’) time because enough people fall for it,” said Susan Douglas, detective sergeant at the Vail Police Department. “Seniors in particular can be more vulnerable because they may not be as Internet savvy.”Douglas said another scam she’s come across involves people pretending to be hearing impaired as a way to get an e-mail address. Once they’re “in,” they exploit what Douglas said is a tendency for people not to distrust a disabled person. Before long, the same deal surfaces: I’ll send the check and you wire back the difference.
Protecting oneself, Douglas said, isn’t difficult. A quick call to the bank can confirm whether a check is good or not.”Or just say you want cash,” she said.At Alpine Bank, Robertson said tellers are trained to spot bogus checks as well as deviations from the normal amounts customers deposit. Even so, a busy teller used to handling legitimate checks can still let one through, and when it fails to clear it’s the customer’s responsibility. And woe to the bank customer who’s already wired the residual to “Tom Cole” in Nigeria or wherever.”We tell people to use common sense,” Robertson said. “If you sell something for $9,000 and then get a check for $45,000, there’s something wrong. They need to question that.”Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado