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Scams

Watch Out for Check Fraud

If you cash a questionable check and it bounces, you're responsible for making good on the loss.

My college-age son sold a Wii to someone over the Internet for $300. The buyer wrote him a $4,000 check and persuaded my son to cash it and give him the $3,700 left over. The bank cashed the check, but -- you guessed it -- the check bounced and the guy is gone. Is the bank at all responsible, or is my son at fault?

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Your son fell for one of the oldest tricks in the arsenal of scam artists. Yes, he is responsible for making good on the loss, and the bank can come after his accounts.

Check fraud is becoming a huge problem, largely because of a federal law that requires banks to make funds available for withdrawal many days before verifying that the money really exists. Or as Michael Benardo, of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s cyberfraud and financial-crimes section puts it: "The bank where you're depositing the check doesn't have a responsibility to call the other bank and verify that the check is real. But it does have a responsibility to make the funds available." That is usually within days after you deposit a check, or within one business day for cashier's checks and money orders.

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But it can take much longer than that for the bank to discover that a check is fraudulent -- and longer still if the check has to travel across the country and back, or if the crook tears the check a bit to slow down automated check-reading equipment. If you send off money or merchandise before then, as your son did, the criminal is long gone.

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The easiest way to avoid these problems is to refuse to accept checks from strangers. And it's always a big red flag if someone asks you to cash a check for more than is owed or says that you've won a sweepstakes you never entered.

Cashier's checks and money orders are generally safer than personal checks, but they're being counterfeited more often now, too. Benardo recommends asking for a money order from the U.S. Postal Service, which can verify that the money order is valid. Or call the bank on which a cashier's check is drawn and ask if it issued the check. Rather than call the phone number printed on the check, which could connect to a dummy answering machine, look up the number online or through the FDIC's bank directory. Also type the bank's name into the search engine at FDIC.gov to see if the FDIC has issued an alert about counterfeit checks in that bank's name.

Let your bank know if you deposit a questionable check. "Explain the details of the transaction," says Tim Chambers, of Wachovia's Deposit, Control and Loss Management department. Until you know that the check is good, don't withdraw the money.

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