It may seem like your lucky day to look through your mail and find a random, legitimate-looking check written out to you for several thousand dollars but think before you take the money and run. Chances are, that check is a forgery. Fake check and money order scams take on many different forms, but the underlying scheme is typically the same.

The stories that con artists use vary widely. You might be selling something online and the scammer pretends to be interested in a purchase. Or scammers will “hire” you for a job, such as secret shopping, or tell you you’ve won a sweepstakes prize.

In all cases, the amount of the check is “accidentally” far more than the amount agreed to. The scammer instructs you to deposit the check, keep the amount owed, and wire back the difference. When you deposit the check, the funds will appear to be available within days. The check eventually bounces, and since you have already wired back the “overpayment” to the scammer you are left liable for the entire amount.

According to Better Business Bureau’s Risk Index, fake checks are the second riskiest scam behind home improvement scams. This is based off factors such as how likely someone is to be targeted, the odds of losing money and how much money is typically at stake. The full study can be found at bbb.org/riskreport.

It’s also a common scam reported on BBB Scam Tracker. As of early February, this year, there have already been 140 reports across the U.S.

Better Business Bureau has the following tips to help avoid this scam:

  • Be immediately suspicious of overpayments. A check can bounce even after your bank allows you to withdraw cash from the deposit. Even if a bank representative tells you that a check has “cleared” you can’t be sure it won’t be detected as a forgery weeks later and you could be liable for the funds drawn against the amount.
  • Never send money to people you don’t know. This is especially true if they ask for the money in an unusual form such as wire transfer or prepaid debit card.
  • If the buyer insists that you wire back funds, end the transaction immediately. Legitimate buyers don’t pressure you to send money via wire transfer services .And, you have little recourse if there’s a problem.
  • Resist any pressure to “act now.” If the buyer’s offer is good now, it should be good after the check clears.

If you think you’ve been the target of a fake check scam, file a report with the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org/scamtracker.

Adam Price is regional director for Better Business Bureau serving the Greater Waco area. He can be reached at aprice@waco.bbb.org.

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