‘Check’ yourself to be safe

CNJ Staff Photo: Tony Bullocks
Linda Davis, vice president and cashier at Portales National Bank, displays some of the counterfeit checks she has received this year.

By Karl Terry: Freedom Newspapers

Tearing up a check made out in your name for thousands of dollars would be a hard thing for most people to do. Tearing it up could be the wisest course of action to avoid being scammed, say law enforcement and banking officials.

Scams, particularly those involving fake lottery checks, have been prevalent for the last seven or eight years, according to local police. During that time the scammers have continually refined their art, using more authentic-looking documents, the Internet and other technology to separate unsuspecting people from their savings.

According to Linda Davis, who tracks scams and counterfeits at Portales National Bank, her institution has seen an increase in the number of scams coming to her attention over the last year. Davis has retained a copy of the various fake documents received at the bank in the last year, and she’s well on her way toward filling a big binder with bogus lottery checks, travelers checks, hoax letters and even fake cashiers checks.

“It’s been out there a long time, but I guess there are still a lot of people that don’t realize it,” Davis said, shaking her head. “Crooks are creative, and these days they can get the equipment.”

She said color copiers and printers paired with check stock with a watermark purchased at an office supply store can help criminals produce some impressive forgeries.

Davis is particularly concerned for elderly customers who sometimes fall quick prey to the slick schemes, often saying the person has won a lottery or some other prize.

“Some of our elderly have gotten real upset on this,” Davis said. “We’d love for them all to win, but it’s just not real.”

According to Davis and the New Mexico attorney general’s Web site, the lottery schemes are often received in the mail with a check made out to the target for an amount usually in the thousands of dollars. Along with the check is a congratulatory letter or certificate along with instructions to wire money, up front, to take care of taxes or handling fees.

Capt. Lonnie Berry of the Portales Police Department said his department gets calls four or five times a week on various scams. He said the most important things to remember are that there is no prize and if you get taken in on a check scam you’re liable to the bank.

“If you have won an award, you never have to pay for it,” Berry said. “You never have to pay taxes up front.”

Berry said he knows of four or five cases in the community where people were scammed out of as much as $30,000.

One case was an elderly lady who got taken three times. In that case Berry said he even got New Mexico Sen. Stuart Ingle involved to try and convince the lady it wasn’t real. After they did, she was subsequently contacted by a swift-talking scam artist on the phone who convinced her to send the money anyway.

“Most times the money is moved around so quickly and dispersed so rapidly that the chance of getting the money back is zero,” Berry said.

Berry says there has been some good cooperation recently with Royal Canadian Mounted Police, because of the number of scams that originate in that country, but the effort has largely been to no avail. Usually by the time the police are notified, the crooks have moved the money and are long-gone.

Max Stansell, a detective in charge of white-collar crimes with the Clovis Police Department, paints an equally gloomy picture. He says he refers a number of cases to the FBI, but knows that it usually doesn’t do any good.

He said scams are common these days and the checks used are good fakes.

“Sometimes even the banks can’t tell they’re fake until they check the routing numbers,” Stansell said.

Stansell noted that a lot of the scams originate outside the country with Canada, Nigeria and England being some of the most common.

He said that another scam becoming more common is one that sometimes originates from online auctions. Someone who had placed a bid will get a call saying the winning bidder had defaulted, and they’ll sell the item to them if they’ll just send the money, he said.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Stansell said. “Nobody is giving money away.”

Other popular schemes that Berry has noticed are those in which someone buying a car or other big-ticket item directly from a person will make out the check for considerably more than the purchase price, saying they need extra money for tags or whatever and they’ll pick up the vehicle later.

Another one involves a phone scam artist talking up a culprit and making the person believe they have the same last name in common. The chat puts the mark at ease, and it makes the check or money transfer more likely to succeed.

“People might just assume you’re wiring money to a grandson or a family member,” Berry said. “It causes people to be less suspicious.

Berry advises people not to call a number to claim a prize, not to send money and never to give out personal information such as account numbers or Social Security numbers to anyone they don’t know.

“We question everything,” Davis said. “Our longtime customers, it’s hard for them to get used to that.”

Davis said the bank would rather take a little extra time in verifying checks before customers cash them and are held liable than to see customers lose their money.