A Stranger Sent You Money — What Could Go Wrong?

by Banks
Online Check Scam

You’ve heard it many times before: It’s too good to be true.

The following scenario happens over and over again — but with many different twists. You meet someone on the Internet who has chosen to trust you with his money. He needs to get money to the United States, and you can help. He convinced you to give him your checking account number so he can send the money to your account. Then, he tells you the money has been wired. You look at your bank account and find it has an additional $50,000 in it. 

He then explains that an attorney in a foreign country helping him move more money needs to be paid. So you need to withdraw 95 percent of the money you received and send a cashier’s check to this attorney.

You check with your bank. Yes, the account was credited, and you can withdraw the money. You request that your bank issue a cashier’s check, and you send it as instructed. You never hear from your Internet friend again, but you aren’t out anything — right? Or have you been scammed?

If the Stranger Sends You Money, How Can That Be a Scam?

In this case, the stranger had stolen a check from the mail, used chemicals to alter the payee to your name, and sent the altered check to your bank with instructions to deposit it into your account.

Most people have no reason to understand how long it may take before a deposited check comes back to haunt them. But the fact is that you can be liable for up to three years — more in some states — when it is later discovered that the check you deposited was altered. 

While the stranger told you that money was being wired to your account, he actually sent an altered check to your bank for deposit into your account. Because you will have sent away your real money long before you learn the check was altered, you are out the money.

Beware of the Common Thread

Many scams involve you receiving the money because the stranger “trusts” you. You are then to send it back or send it to someone else. If you can’t afford to pay foreign taxes in advance on the millions you won, then no problem. He will send you a check from an investor, and you can send him that money and pay the investor back when you receive your winnings. 

He may say, “My bank made out the cashier’s check for the wrong amount, so please deposit the check and return the extra money to me.” He may want to pay you extra for your Craigslist item so you can send the large overpayment to a shipper for him. He may want to employ you, and one of your first jobs will be to receive payments in your account and wire the money or send it by cashier’s check, MoneyGram, or Western Union to some other person, possibly in some other country. 

In all of these cases, the money you receive is a bogus check, an altered check, or money stolen from somewhere else and sent to your account. He simply wants you to think the money you sent for him is money he gave you first. 

There are two easy steps to avoid almost all of these scams:

1.     If it sounds too good to be true, ignore it, hang up, don’t hit reply, close the chat, and walk away. Don’t try to find out whether it’s a real deal — it isn’t! Crooks have lots of practice convincing people and know how to answer every question. They know how to convince you that they trust you, causing you to forget that you shouldn’t trust them. Walk away early — it’s too good to be true.

2.     Don’t let others run money through your account — ever. You would never take a check from some stranger on the street, deposit it into your account, withdraw the cash, and give it back to the stranger. It’s the same thing online. That check put into your account may come back to bite you years later. 

Nobody “accidentally” overpays you. Nobody ever really needs you to send money to someone else for shipping costs; he can send the shipper the payment directly. No legitimate employer will ever request that you receive money into your account, then send the money to others by Western Union or MoneyGram. If someone wants you to run money through your account, it’s always a scam. Walk away. Don’t be drawn in.

Chuck Towle is president of KBS, the bankers division of Berkshire Hathaway Homestate Insurance Company. Chuck has been handling bank insurance issues for 35 years, and he regularly provides guidance to bankers about preventing embezzlements, forgeries, check kites, and other crimes against banks. For more than 15 years, he has authored the Security Officer’s By-Word to provide bankers with the knowledge they need to avoid losses.