We may live in a world of contactless credit cards and mobile payment apps, but old-fashioned paper checks are far from extinct. Checks still accounted for 6.5 percent of noncash payments in the United States in 2020 and for nearly 23 percent of the money that changed hands in those transactions, according to the most recent Federal Reserve data.
That continuing reliance on paper creates an opportunity for scammers to try to steal your money through a variety of fake check scams. The approaches differ, but these cons have the same basic kicker: The crooks want to get you to deposit a counterfeit check in your bank account, then return a portion of the supposed funds to them.
One common ruse is the overpayment scam. You put something up for sale in a newspaper classified ad or online post. Someone makes an offer and sends you a check — perhaps even a cashier’s check, which seems extra-safe. The check turns out to be for considerably more than what you charged for the item. The “buyer” will pretend it’s a mistake and ask you to deposit the check and refund them the difference.
That’s a scam. Crooks exploit the fact that banks must make funds from a check deposit available to the account holder within days but can take far longer to discover that the check is phony — sometime weeks, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). When the check does bounce, you’re out whatever you sent the scammer, plus any other funds from the fake check that you’ve withdrawn or used. Banks do not assume those losses.
Con artists run numerous variations on this scheme.
- You get a letter, with a check enclosed, saying you’ve won a foreign lottery, but you have to wire a portion of the winnings back to cover taxes and fees.
- You get offered a government grant, scholarship money or, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a stimulus check that includes extra funds for taxes, processing or a mistaken "overpayment."
- A seemingly lucrative work-from-home job requires you to use some of your first paycheck to purchase necessary supplies. (A popular twist on this is the mystery shopper scam: A company supposedly hires you to evaluate a store, restaurant or money-transfer service and sends a check to cover your purchases.)
In each case, the check bounces and you’re out what you’ve paid. And that can be quite a bit: The Better Business Bureau reported a median loss of $1,475 from complaints of fake check or money order scams it logged in 2021, making them the second-costliest con among those the organization tracks.
These scams remain popular with fraudsters because they’re easy to pull off. With the help of a scanner and a good printer, a crook can fabricate a bogus check — even a bank draft, certified check or cashier’s check — that’s hard to distinguish from the real thing (see "6 Ways to Spot a Fake Check," below). Some phony checks even contain authentic-looking watermarks, according to the FTC.
6 Ways to Spot a Fake Check
With advances in scanning and printing, scammers can produce counterfeit checks that get alarmingly close to the real thing. But there are still several physical clues that can help you discern when you’ve been passed some bad paper. If you’re unsure of a check’s provenance, follow these tips from EPCOR, a nonprofit association that works to improve payment systems for more than 2,000 member banks, credit unions and other financial institutions in 12 states.