Scammers get sophisticated
There was no return address on the envelope Denise Wilstead opened Monday, but the check inside looked and felt real enough. It showed $3,400 payable to her, drawn on the account of Prudential Insurance from Wachovia Bank. A letter on HSBC Bank letterhead informed her that she had won a random drawing for $290,000 and this was her first installment payment.
"I hollered to my son-in-law, 'Allen, Allen, get in here! Is this a real check?'" she recalled Wednesday. He advised her to ask her bank. "So I went to Utah Central Credit Union and they told me it was a scam. They said they'd come across other checks like this but that I was the first one to bring in the letter that came along with it."
The letter is fishy. First of all, there are a lot of multiple exclamation points in it, which betrays non-professional writing!!! And sure enough, there was a little caveat, a little quid quo pro in the letter that was a dead giveaway of a scam. All she'd have to do to collect the rest of the money would be to transfer $2,900 from her bank account via Western Union to a tax agent identified in the letter.
Had she done that, she would have lost the money. The $3,400 check she deposited would have bounced, but that would happen after she had withdrawn real money from her account.
What sets this scheme apart from routine Internet ripoffs is that it uses the U.S. Mail and authentic check stock. The Sun Advocate staff used a photographer's loupe (magnifying glass) and found microprinting on the front of the check. A photocopy of the check clearly showed "VOID" as it should. There is even a coated security code on the back of the check.
"It is real check stock and I don't know where [scammers] get it, but there has been a lot going around," said Terrie Tweddell, Senior Loan Officer at Utah Central. Sometimes the phony checks have real routing codes and account numbers, she added.
Ms. Tweddell said that the credit union will put a ten-day business hold on suspicious checks to protect customers. "People who receive checks from somewhere or someone they don't know have to be extremely careful," she warned. "Of course, any time they [scammers] ask for money back, it's a scam, plain and simple. Why should they take your winnings back?"