Protect yourself from fake check scams with these tips from FDIC Consumer News
Even in today’s digital and mobile world where electronic money transfers are common, consumers and businesses may still prefer the assumed security of paper cashier’s checks or official bank checks for large or major payments. Recipients generally prefer one of these checks over a personal check because the financial institution presumably has already collected the funds from the party purchasing the cashier’s checks or official bank checks. This means the payment is guaranteed, unless the check is counterfeit, so there are risks to consumers and businesses from these types of paper instruments, as well.
Unfortunately, criminals have come to rely on their victim’s sense of “security” provided by cashier’s checks and official bank checks. Advanced graphics and printing technologies allow scammers to easily create fraudulent and hard-to-detect counterfeit checks in a matter of minutes, adding a sense of legitimacy to their scams. Fake checks can look so real that it’s very hard for consumers, or even bank employees, to detect.
Fake bank checks are typically used in scams where the scammer tries to get you to cash or deposit the check. Once it is deposited, they ask that you send all or part of the proceeds back to them or to someone else (an accomplice) before the bank where it was deposited tries to clear or process the check for payment and realizes the instrument is fake. The scammer might ask you to return the funds in a number of ways: in cash, by writing a personal check, by loading it onto a pre-paid or gift card, or through some electronic means, such as a wire transfer, automated clearing house (ACH) payment, or a person to person (P2P) transaction.
If it is later determined that the check was counterfeit, you will likely be held responsible for the funds that were provided to the scammer, so it is important that you recognize the signs of a counterfeit check to protect yourself. Remember, fraud artists are constantly coming up with new ways to use fraudulent cashier’s or official bank checks in their scams. Here are three of the most common scams, and tips on how to detect whether or not you are being scammed.
- Lotteries and Sudden Riches Scams
In these examples, the check recipients are told that they won a lottery—perhaps in a foreign country—or that they are entitled to receive an inheritance. The recipient is instructed that in order to “claim" their lottery winnings or inheritance, the recipient must first pay “taxes and fees” before they can receive their prize or money. A fake cashier’s check is sent, which the scammer asks the recipient to cash and then wire back the funds to cover the taxes and fees.
- Online Auctions, Classified Listing Sites, and Overpayment Scams
Scammers might go to an online auction or classified listing site and offer to buy an item for sale, pay for a service in advance, or rent an apartment. The odd thing is that they might send you a cashier’s check for an amount that is higher than your asking price. When you bring this to their attention, they will apologize for the oversight and ask you to quickly return the extra funds. The scammer’s motive is to get you to cash or deposit the check and send back legitimate money before you realize that the check you deposited is fake.
- Secret or Mystery Shopper Employment Scams
In these cases, the scammer advertises a job opportunity and claims to be "hiring" people to work from home. The “employee” might receive an official check as a starting bonus, and is asked to cover the cost of “account activation.” The scammer hopes to receive these funds before the official check clears and the new employee realizes they’ve been scammed. Another scenario involves an offer to work from home as a secret shopper to "assess the quality" of local money transfer businesses. The “employee” is sent a cashier’s check and instructed to deposit it in their bank account and withdraw the amount in cash. They are then instructed to use a local money transfer business to send the funds back to the “employer” and "evaluate" the service provided by the money transfer business.
How to Spot a Fake Check
Determining whether a cashier’s check or bank check is legitimate is difficult just by physical inspection. However, there are some things you can do to help identity a fake check:
- Make sure the check was issued by a legitimate bank. While some counterfeit checks will include a legitimate bank’s name, a fake name is a sure giveaway. FDIC BankFind allows you to locate FDIC-insured banking institutions in the United States.
- Check with the bank that supposedly issued the check to make sure it is real. Make sure you look up the phone number on the bank’s official website and don’t use the phone number printed on the check (that could be a phone number controlled and answered by the scam artist). Next, call the official number and ask them to verify the check. They will likely need to know the check number, issuance date, and amount.
- Consider how and why you received the check. If someone you don’t know initiated the payment, be skeptical and proceed cautiously. Scammers often communicate with their victims via e-mail or text message. Their communications may contain poor grammar and spelling errors.
- Look where the check was mailed from--if the postmark is not the same as the city and state of the “supposed” issuing bank, it might be an indication the check is fake. Be especially cautious if it was mailed from overseas.
- Determine if the amount of the check is correct and as expected. Fake checks are often made out for more than the agreed upon amount. This is intended to coax the person receiving the check into wiring the overpayment back to the scammer.
- Official checks usually contain watermarks, security threads, color-changing ink and other security features. While scammers are able to sometimes copy these security features, the quality is often poorly executed.
What to Do If You Are Scammed
If you think you’ve been targeted by a counterfeit check scam, report it immediately to any of the following agencies:
- The Federal Trade Commission at FTC Complaint Assistant.
- The U.S. Postal Inspection Service at www.uspis.gov (if you received the check in the mail).
- Your state or local consumer protection agencies. Visit NAAG for a list of state Attorneys General.
- For possible online crimes involving counterfeit checks and money orders, file an online complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (a joint project of the FBI and National White Collar Crime Center).
In addition to notifying the bank whose name is on the check, you can notify the website or online service where you encountered the scammer (for example, the online auction website or job posting website), so they can block them from utilizing their services in the future.
For more help or information, go to FDIC.gov or call the FDIC toll-free at 1-877-ASK-FDIC (1-877-275-3342).
7 financial tips for starting your own business
By Hugh Norton
If you've got a business idea and you couple that with an entrepreneurial itch, you may find yourself tossing and turning at night trying to figure out a plan for moving it forward – dreaming of the day you'll become your own boss.
I've hung my shingle in the past and know from experience that there are ups and downs to starting and owning a business. The initial years can be especially tricky, but the long-term payoff can also be financially and personally rewarding.
If you're up for the challenge and excited by the prospect of becoming a business owner, there are a few steps you can take to help make sure you'll start your new venture on sound financial footing.
1. Create a business plan. Using a written business plan as a guide for your first few years as a business owner can be very helpful. The process of researching and writing your business plan can also teach you more about the industry and may help you better understand the viability of your idea.
A good place to start could be with either the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) or the SCORE Association (a non-profit supported by the SBA), who have free resources and training that you can use to help you create a business plan.
Once it's complete, you can use the business plan to attract partners, investors and employees who share your vision for the future of the business.
2. Research your potential start-up costs. You might already be adding up necessary expenses in your head: a website, office or retail space, payroll if you need to hire employees, etc. However, there are also lesser-known expenses that may surprise first-time business owners.
For example, you could have to pay fees and permitting costs to your city, county or state. And depending on the business, you may need to get licensed and purchase insurance, all of which have costs that can add up.
Knowing your actual start-up costs, which should be factored into your business plan, can be important as you look for funding. And whether you're tapping into personal savings, asking friends or family for investments, crowdfunding or applying for a loan, you should stop to consider the potential pros and cons of each approach.
3. Separate your personal and business finances. Even if you're starting as a sole proprietorship and decide not to form a business entity, it's generally a good idea to separate your business and personal expenses.
One way you might consider doing so is by opening a new bank account that you only use for business-related transactions and putting all your business-related purchases on a debit or credit card linked to that account that you don't use for anything else.
Keeping your accounts separate can save you time when you file your tax return or need to review your expenses. If you incorporate your business, separating your personal and financial accounts can also be an essential step in limiting your personal liability.
4. Consult with experienced professionals. Setting your time aside for research and learning can be important, but paying for professional expertise now can help you protect your business later and lead to long-term savings.
- Attorneys can provide guidance as to how to structure your business and make sure the legal paperwork matches the vision in your head. They may also be able to tell you about relevant local laws that could impact your business.
- Accountants can help you determine which business type (e.g. an LLC versus an S corporation) makes the most financial sense for your business and offers the most tax savings.
- Insurance agents or brokers can tell you about the different types of insurance you can use to limit your liability.
5. Track your income and expenses. Knowing where your money comes from and goes can be important when you're trying to decide where to reinvest within your business and where you may be able to cut costs.
You could start with a simple spreadsheet if you don't have a lot of clients or overhead. As you grow, you'll likely want to use more complex software to manage your finances.
There are a variety of inexpensive cloud-based accounting, invoicing and payroll systems for sale that you can use to help with the administrative tasks. Many let you give limited access to a bookkeeper or accountant if you want to outsource some of the work.
6. Start building your business's credit. New business owners may not realize that there's a difference between personal credit and business credit. Your business can have its own credit reports and scores, and you may be able to use your business' credit to secure financing or get more favorable terms from vendors.
You can start building business credit by working with vendors that report your payments to the business credit bureaus (you can ask them or look online for lists). In some cases, using a business credit card could also build your business's credit.
7. Create a business emergency fund. An emergency fund can help you get through a personal or family crisis without worrying about your finances. Consider building a separate emergency fund for your business, which may offer similar benefits in case you hit a slow season or unexpected setback.
Bottom line: When you strike out on your own, money isn't always the most important thing – hopefully you've found something you also love to do – but you want to make sure the numbers add up. Putting in the time to make sure your finances are in order, and creating a plan for how you'll grow your business, can be essential to becoming a successful entrepreneur.