Got an Unexpected Check in the Mail? It May Be Fake

“Con artists favor these payment methods because once the money is sent,” the F.T.C. said, “it is almost impossible to trace or reverse.”

Ms. Vaca said the criminals “create an illusion,” adding: “You have a check in your hand, then a deposit in your bank account. It doesn’t look fake. It feels completely risk free.”

In one account detailed in a Better Business Bureau report in 2018, a student in Oakland, Calif., received an offer at her college email address. The “very professional looking” message said she could earn $250 a week by driving her car around after having it “wrapped” with an ad for Mountain Dew. (Banks have issued warnings about “shrink wrap” scams involving beer and energy drink brands.)

She took the job to help pay her tuition, and received a check in the mail for $4,850 — ostensibly to pay for the wrap job. She deposited the check and the next day was able to withdraw $3,500, which she redeposited — as instructed — into a separate bank account held by the “car specialist.”

The student grew suspicious, however, when she received a text message telling her to withdraw an additional $500 and put it on an iTunes gift card, and she reported the situation to the police. The criminal’s bank account had been closed, and the money was gone. Her own bank demanded that she repay the $3,500, so she agreed to an installment plan to pay off her losses.

Think you wouldn’t fall for it? Think again. People fall prey to schemes because of “optimism bias,” a bureau report found; they think typical victims are older, gullible or even stupid and don’t see themselves that way. In truth, the Better Business Bureau report noted, “we are all vulnerable.”

Here are some questions and answers about fake check fraud:

If the check was fake and I was a victim, why do I have to repay my bank?

Customers are responsible for bounced checks because they are generally in the best position to evaluate whether a check they deposit is legitimate, said Nessa Feddis, senior vice president at the American Bankers Association.

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