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Avoiding the Babysitter Payment Scam

Overpayment checks will bounce and leave you on the hook

En español  |  After years of babysitting for neighborhood kids and her own beloved grandchildren, Beth Palzet figured she'd earn some extra cash by posting her availability and qualifications on Care.com, a legitimate and widely used website for caregivers.

Soon she received a query from "Nancy Wagner." I'm living overseas, the person wrote, but am about to come to the U.S. — would you be able to watch my two preschoolers? After exchanging cellphone text messages and emails, Palzet was told she was hired. Wagner even offered to pay in advance.

The babysitter overpayment scam is back. And Palzet, a 61-year-old AARP member from Illinois, almost got caught up in it.

Her experience is typical of this ruse, which made headlines in 2010, prompting warnings from the Better Business Bureau and other organizations.

The pattern is that a scammer answers a caregiver's online ad, using a fake name. Once an agreement is struck — typically without a face-to-face meeting or even a phone conversation — the "client" sends a check as advance payment for the promised work.

But the check is for considerably more than the amount discussed. The caregiver is told to deposit the check and quickly wire the excess back to the supposed employer or some other party. Guess what? After a week or so, the check proves to be counterfeit, and the victim is responsible for all the money that went to the scammer.

In Palzet's case, the check was for $2,700. Of that, $500 was her "first payment" and the rest was to be sent via a Western Union wire transfer to a "businessman" who would use the funds to buy toys for Nancy Wagner's children.

"The fact that [Wagner] and I never spoke or that she didn't request a face-to-face meeting before hiring me seemed plausible, since she said she was out of the country," Palzet said. "My photo and qualifications are posted — and since she said she lives abroad, I figured that's how they do things."

But in the end, Palzet wasn't buying it. She contacted Scam Alert and was advised not to forward the $2,200 and to wait for the deposited check to prove counterfeit. That happened two days later as the check was issued on a nonexistent account.

Overpayment checks also figure in other work-at-home jobs, in online auctions and sales, and in phony sweepstakes and lottery schemes.

No matter what the con, here's what you should know:

• Overpayment scammers hide behind the anonymity of email and text messages. Be suspicious of any business relationship in which you can't talk with or meet the other party. Honestly, what reasonable parent would entrust children to a stranger? And pay in advance?

• Never deposit a check for more than an agreed-on amount and do not follow instructions to forward some portion of it — especially via MoneyGram or Western Union. Be even more suspicious when correspondence is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, signs of a foreign-based scammer.

• To be entirely safe concerning any deposited check, contact your bank to find out when the funds from it have been collected. Hearing that a check has cleared could merely mean that your bank has credited your account, fronting you the money pending collection from the other bank, and will take it back if the check's bad.

• Scammers can print phony checks with materials that are readily available in any office supply store. So treat any unexpected check with suspicion. Contact the issuing bank to verify its authenticity. If the check has a phone number, don't use it — it could put you through to the crook posing as a bank rep. Instead, look up the bank's number yourself.

• When corresponding with a person who is proposing to hire you based on a job posting, do an online search to try to confirm the person's name, phone number, address and company.

With a Google search of "Nancy Wagner babysitting," Scam Alert quickly learned that in the weeks before Palzet was targeted, several other people got hit by a scammer using that name.

Other clues to this con: The phone number that the scammer provided is in the Baltimore area, not a foreign country. (Not surprisingly, "Wagner" did not return a voice mail that Scam Alert left requesting comment.) And the address given for a supposed toy store is actually for a law firm.

• When selling things online, insist that buyers use an escrow service or online payment service instead of sending a personal check.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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