FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
En español | 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the check does bounce, you’re out whatever you sent the scammer, plus any other funds from the fake check that you’ve withdrawn or used.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. Some fake checks even contain authentic-looking watermarks, according to the FTC.
- A prospective buyer of something you put up for sale sends you a check for more than the asking price.
- You get a check in the mail with lottery winnings you can only claim by wiring back some of the money. No legitimate sweepstakes or lottery requires payment to play or collect a prize.
- A grant, scholarship or job requires you to send back a fee out of your first payment.
- Do suggest that a buyer who wants to pay you for an item or service by check use a safer alternative — for example, an online peer-to-peer service like PayPal.
- Do ask for checks to be drawn on local banks or banks with local branches. That way, you can visit the bank to make sure the check is legit. If you do accept a check from an out-of-town bank, call it before you deposit the check to verify that the check is genuine.
- Do examine checks carefully. Scammers can meticulously duplicate genuine checks, but some make mistakes, such as using an incorrect routing number for a bank or putting a check number in the upper left corner that doesn’t match the one at the bottom.
- Do back out of a sale if the buyer pressures you to wire back funds.
- Do wait at least two weeks after you deposit a check from an unfamiliar source before you withdraw or spend money from it.
- Don’t accept a check that’s made out for more than the price of the item or service you’re selling. Insist that the buyer make out a new one for the correct amount.
- Don’t rely on a phone number for a bank that a seller prints on a check. If you want to call to authenticate the payment, look up the bank’s number on its official website.
- Don’t wire money to people you don’t know.
- Don’t give in to pressure to move fast on a payment to secure a job or supposed financial windfall. If a deal is legitimate, it will still be available after the check clears.
Updated April 1, 2022
About the Fraud Watch Network
Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.
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