Beware the stimulus check scam

With the proliferation of news stories about fake check scams, you think consumers would be smart enough not to fall for them. Obviously, that's not the case.

There's a simple rule consumers can follow which will protect them 100% of the time: There's no such thing as a free lunch. If someone is telling you that you won a lottery you never entered, you've inherited a large sum of money from a relative overseas who you've never heard of, or the government is giving you thousands of dollars just for kicks.... Run the other way.

The latest swindle is a "stimulus check" that has popped up in amounts as high as $7,000. The checks look authentic, which is no surprise considering the technology scammers have to work with. Consumers have reported receiving a check in the mail with a letter that says they can get even more money if they call a toll-free number (and give up some personal information, I'm sure).

Of course people are being swindled in part because they've heard of the zillion dollar stimulus package that the Obama administration is pushing. But that's no excuse for being silly. First, the package hasn't even passed yet. Second, even if it had, it's too soon for anyone to be receiving any money yet. Third, no individual is going to receive thousands of dollars with this stimulus.

Consumers shouldn't be fooled, either, by the fact that a check has "cleared" their bank. If you take the chance of actually depositing one of these fake checks, you should wait at least a couple of weeks before trying to withdraw any of the money. Even if a check "clears" within the first few days, the bank still has time to declare it counterfeit and take the money back from you.

If you did get swindled by one of these scams, don't worry. It happens to the best and the brightest too. A Houston law firm is out $182,500 because they fell for a fake check scam. They deposited a counterfeit check for $367,000, and then sent $182,500 to their "client" after they thought the check cleared. It was later deemed counterfeit and the law firm was on the hook for the funds.

A few words to the wise: Be suspicious of any free money offered to you, especially if it comes with strings attached (like asking for personal information or bank account data) and the sender is urging you to cash the check quickly.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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