Sometimes it comes by surprise, other times while you’re expecting some sort of payment: a check in the mail, sometimes for a few thousand dollars. The check comes with instructions asking you to deposit it and send some of the money back to the sender, or hand it off to a third party.
But why can’t you keep all the money? And do strangers really just send payments out of the blue?
Several VERIFY readers like Gina recently received unexpected checks in the mail, thought they seemed suspicious and asked our team if they might be scams.
Do scammers send fake checks in the mail?
Yes, scammers do send fake checks in the mail. Fake check scams are common and have been around for at least two decades.
WHAT WE FOUND
Fake checks might seem convincing at first, but what looks like an unexpected payday can actually be a scam meant to take your money. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) explains how these schemes typically work:
“In a fake check scam, a person you don’t know asks you to deposit a check. It’s usually for more than they owe you, and it’s sometimes for several thousand dollars,” the FTC says. “They tell you to send some of the money back to them or to another person. They always have a good story to explain why you can’t keep all the money. They might say they need you to cover taxes or fees for a prize, to buy supplies for a job, to send back money they overpaid, or something else. But this is a scam.”
Usually, the scammer asks for the payment or refund by wire transfer, such as through Western Union or MoneyGram, or by gift card, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) says.
There are two major reasons why this scam is successful. The first is that it takes advantage of the fact that banks must make funds from a check deposit available to you within days, but it can take the bank far longer, sometimes even weeks, to discover that the check is phony, the AARP says. The other reason is that victims have no way to get their money back once the scammer has it.
“Wiring money is like sending cash – as soon as the money is picked up, it’s gone,” the Better Business Bureau (BBB) says. “Victims have no ability to get their money back as they might have had if they used a credit card.”
Fake check scams are both common, and have worked for a long time. The FTC says fake checks are used in employment scams, car wrap decal offers, phony sweepstakes and prizes and overpayments when you sell something online. The BBB says the Postal Inspection Service stopped fake checks with a face value of $62 billion from entering the United States in fiscal year 2017, and also intercepted 13,724 counterfeit postal money orders. The FTC issued its first warning about fake check scams as far back as 2004.
How to spot a fake check scam
A good way to avoid falling victim to this scam is to never use money from a check to send gift cards, money orders, cryptocurrency or to wire money to anyone. If you’re selling something, don’t accept a check for more than the selling price, the FTC says.
Don’t assume the check is legitimate just because it looks like it is. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency warned in 2021 that scammers were using counterfeit cashier’s checks, which are checks guaranteed by a bank. The FTC warns that some fake check scams even use real checks written on bank accounts that belong to someone whose identity has been stolen.
What to do if you are a victim of a fake check scam
If you do end up cashing a check you receive from a stranger, don’t assume the check is valid just because funds are immediately available in your account. That money can disappear from your account weeks later if the check is discovered to be a counterfeit.
“By law, banks have to make deposited funds available quickly, usually within two days,” the FTC says. “When the funds are made available in your account, the bank may say the check has ‘cleared,’ but that doesn’t mean it’s a good check. Fake checks can take weeks to be discovered.”
You may have a short window of time to recover your money if you do wire money to a scammer. Contact Western Union or MoneyGram immediately if you used either service and suspect you might have fallen for a scam. Western Union says it can stop the transaction and refund your money if the transfer hasn’t been cashed yet.
You can call Western Union’s fraud hotline at 1-800-448-1492 to get your money back for an uncashed money order, and you can file a fraud claim through an online form if the scammer has already run off with your money. Similarly, if you used MoneyGram and the money order hasn’t been cashed yet, you can call 1-800-926-9400 to potentially cancel the transaction. If the money is already gone, you can also use MoneyGram’s online form for reporting fraud.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation says you should contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service if you received a fake check by mail, or if the scam began online, report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. The FTC adds you should contact your state’s attorney general.
You might also want to report the scam to the FTC and the BBB, as well as the bank whose name is on the check.