Take a pass on offers that just feel too good

Consuming Interests

January 02, 2007|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Columnist

If there's ever been a single good consumer mantra to hang your hat on, trust "if it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

Tim Longmire said that surely saved him a ton of grief recently when he received a $2,300 check in the mail for two micro-suede swivel chairs he was selling on the online classifieds site Craigslist.

Under normal conditions, a $2,300 check is delightful. But Longmire's Spidey sense started tingling almost immediately at the windfall since: A. His chairs were two years old, B. He paid $900 for them brand new, and C. He was only asking $500.

"I got a lot of responses to my ad, but one guy e-mailed me two days later and told me he had to have the chairs," said the 39-year-old project coordinator from Arnold. "He wanted me to take the ad off the Web site immediately and he was going to send me a check. He didn't say how much, but I thought it was a little curious that his e-mail was full of misspelled words.

"When I finally got the check at my home, it was for so much more money than I was asking for, it was ridiculous," Longmire said, laughing. "I knew it had to be a fake."

You'd be laughing, too, if you had the good sense that Longmire did. Unfortunately, many people fall victim to scams every year - be it by snail mail, telephone or electronic channels.

Last year, Internet-related complaints alone accounted for losses of more than $335 million, 46 percent of the losses from all reported fraud complaints, says the Federal Trade Commission.

Whether it's phony lottery or sweepstakes winnings, shop-at-home sales, work-at-home opportunities, advance-fee loans or check scams, sleazy scalawags seemingly use endless techniques to bilk you.

In the category of counterfeit check schemes, the most common type involves a fake cashier's check, although phony personal and corporate checks are also employed, according to the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. Bogus checks look increasingly legitimate nowadays with the use of high-quality printers and scanners.

Longmire's $2,300 came in the form of a cashier's check from the American Savings Bank in Hawaii. The check came in an envelope that had a return address in Alabama and a postmark from Oakland, Calif.

All so curious, yes? Longmire thought so, too.

Furthermore, Longmire noticed that the name on the check was different from the name on the return address envelope. Both of those names were also different from the name in the e-mail sent Longmire. Ultimately, Longmire was directed to use part of the funds to ship the chairs and then wire part of the money back to the buyer. The rest, Longmire would keep for his trouble.

Sounds fabulous, right? Wrong.

Remember those Nigerian letter scams? You know, the sender of the letter, fax or e-mail says they're a government official or member of the royal family, asks for help transferring a boatload of money out of the country and pinky-finger swears to pay you for your help.

All you have to do is provide a banking account number, a Social Security number, birth date or other personal information. By the time you wise up to your generous Nigerian buddy, he or she has already fled with all the money in your personal account, your identity or the cash you wired them.

Well, that familiar scheming friend is still around, dressed up in snazzier clothing.

Instead of peddling a Nigerian fortune, however, the con can now come with news that you're the beneficiary of a will. You could be directed to a fake Web site to view a fake bank account filled with millions that's just waiting for you to collect. Or you might be solicited for donations to help fight an evil dictator. Or like Longmire's buyer, you could be sent a check for more than the asking price.

In most scenarios, check recipients will deposit that money in a bank account, check to see if the money is available, find out that it is and then withdraw it from the account. The bad news can arrive weeks or months later when the bank finds out the check didn't clear the issuing bank and you're stuck paying the bank back.

Longmire checked to make sure there was indeed an American Savings Bank in Hawaii. There was. He called the bank and then faxed them a copy of the cashier's check. Bank officials reviewed it and soon told him it was a fake.

"I knew it was fake; I just knew it," Longmire said. "I wonder how many people get scammed by this every year? I have the check posted in my cubicle at work and use it for a reminder and a good laugh. Sellers beware!"

FTC has some tips for wary consumers:

Know who you're dealing with. In any transaction, independently confirm the buyer's name, street address and telephone number.

Don't accept a check for more than the selling price, no matter how tempting. If the buyer refuses to send the correct amount, return the check. Don't send the merchandise.

Consider an alternative method of payment. As a seller, you can suggest an escrow service or online payment service. Check out any service you've never heard of.

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