Renee Smith doesn’t know why she received a $4,995 check out-of-the-blue. She’s just happy she had the good sense to question it when she did. The New York student tossed the check, along with the letter that instructed her to deposit the check at her bank and return $4,400 of it via a wire transfer to a company in Canada.
Last February, Canadian authorities arrested two operators of a similar scam involving counterfeit checks mailed to US residents. The recipients were instructed to deposit the checks and wire back a portion of the funds, only to discover later that the checks were bogus. It’s estimated that hundreds of US residents lost a total of at least $150,000 to date.
Now it’s starting again. Smith is one of numerous students and stay-at-home parents nationwide who received a similar dubious offer in the past few weeks. Although some of the details varied, including the name of the company allegedly making the offer, all of them instructed the recipients to cash the unsolicited checks and then send almost all of the proceeds to a contact in Canada via MoneyGram International Inc., a Minneapolis-based global payment services company.
The company realizes that it’s been drawn into a scam. In a consumer warning on its website, the firm notes that it offers “an efficient and speedy way to send money throughout the world. Unfortunately, our services have been used by some fraud perpetrators, to fool or trick consumers with a variety of scams.”
It advises consumers to send money only to people they know and trust, and stresses that they should be “very suspicious” if they receive:
• A check or money order with instructions to cash it and then send some of the funds to someone else through MoneyGram.
• A telephone call from someone who claims you have won money or a prize, but need to send money to pay for taxes or fees.
• A response to an ad for a lost pet or lost personal items, from someone who claims he needs advance funds before returning it.
• A suggestion from a stranger to send money to someone as a show of “good faith” in order to receive prize winnings or other payment.
• An email that appears to be from MoneyGram. “We are not an Internet escrow or shipment service and will never send an email confirmation to inform a person that they have received a MoneyGram transfer for payment of an Internet purchase,” it notes.
• A warning not to share details of the transaction with Moneygram personnel or anyone else.
Consumers can report fraud to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. For scams that involve Canadian companies or con artists, contact PhoneBusters, a joint effort of U.S. and Canadian law enforcement to fight telemarketing fraud, toll-free at 1-888-495-8501.