Congratulations! You're being scammed!
It's your lucky day! You've just won $11 million in the Jamaican Lottery. The letter is celebratory and the cashier's check sure looks legitimate, watermark and all. All you have to do to receive the rest of your winnings is deposit the check and wire money for the taxes and fees to the sender. Congratulations!
Actually, it's not a lucky day at all. This scam is exactly how a Nebraska woman ended up losing $58,000, according to the Better Business Bureau.
David Nanz, the FBI's chief of economic crimes unit, talked about fake check scams like this one and offered tips to avoid becoming a victim.
Nanz said these check scams are similar to the Nigerian letter fraud that has been around for about 25 years. He said most of the bogus checks come out of Nigeria, or from Nigerians who have moved to other countries.
They tend to flood the U.S. market with amazingly realistic-looking fake checks, hoping that if only 1 percent of the population falls for the scam they'll still profit.
Originally, the scammers would contact victims directly, but now they've become more sophisticated, recruiting unwitting Americans to participate in the fraud, Nanz said.
Online recruiting is part of the scam, too. One example Nanz gave involved an American man being hoodwinked by someone he thought was a beautiful Nigerian woman. She persuaded him to send out checks for her.
But there is no beautiful woman — only scammers who have created a way for their fake checks to have U.S. postmarks. The postmarks make them a lot less suspicious to recipients, according to Nanz.
The Nebraska woman who lost all that money believed she won a foreign lottery, which is just one of the ways the scam presents itself. Mystery shopping, unsolicited government grants and overpayment for advertised items are all tactics used to separate consumers from their money.
When you deposit a check, federal law requires the bank to make the funds available quickly, usually in one to five days. However, just because funds appear in your account does not mean the check has cleared. You become responsible for any funds you withdraw against that check, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Nanz advises: "Any check you get from someone you don't know, assume it's not real. If you're going to deposit it in your account, wait two weeks before you do anything with the money."
Nanz also suggested asking yourself if the transaction makes sense. If someone "accidentally" overpays for an item you advertised in a classified ad and asks you to wire the extra money back immediately, it's probably a scam.
"The reality is, because of the volume of fraudulent checks, the best way to fight it is with education," Nanz said. Most of the money is wired to another country, which makes the thieves hard to track.
If you are targeted as a victim of this fake check scam, don't deposit the check. Report it to the FTC, which submits its complaints to the Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,500 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad. Visit www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or call toll-free 1-877-382-4357.