Fake Check Scams: Is That Big Check You Got in the Mail Counterfeit?

Don't Be Scammed by Counterfeit Prize Checks

Image of a fake check.
A fake check can cause you a lot of trouble. Image (c) Gabyjalbert / E+ / Getty Images

When you enter sweepstakes, you'll sometimes receive an exciting "surprize" in the mail: a sweepstakes prize that you didn't know you'd won until you received it. Checking your mail and finding a surprize is a thrill.

So knowing that you can receive a surprize at any time, you might think that the best type of surprize to receive would be a big check. But before you get too excited, take a second to think about it.

There's one thing that all surprizes have in common: They have a relatively small prize value. Why? In the United States, sweepstakes sponsors are required to file any prizes they send that are worth more than $600 with the IRS. To do so, they need to send an affidavit before releasing prizes worth more than $600.

So if you have received a check worth more than $600 as a prize without an affidavit, you know right away that it's a fake check scam, and it can cause you financial and legal problems.

What Are Fake Check Scams?

A fake check scam capitalizes on your enthusiasm for winning prizes to convince you to hand over money to thieves. They send you a check and convince you that you are a winner. You only need to send them a small portion of that prize back to them and keep the rest.

But that's nonsensical. You never need to send money to release a prize.

Here's an example of how a sweepstakes check scam might work. It starts with you receiving a check in the mail, along with congratulations on winning your large prize.

There are also instructions that the check is only a portion of the prize, intended to cover "taxes," "customs fees," "service fees," or a similar bogus charge. Once you have used the check to cover the charge, your larger prize will be released to you.

You're instructed to deposit the check and to call a number on the letter for further instructions. Those instructions include directions to wire the money back to cover the so-called fees.

Once you've wired the money, you'll discover that the check is either stolen or counterfeit. That means you won't get the money from the check you deposited, and you'll be out the money you wired back to the scammers.

But even worse, you have legal liability for the amount of the fraudulent check, as well as bank fees for the bounced check and for any litigation costs that the bank incurs. That can add up to a very expensive mistake.

Furthermore, depositing a fraudulent check is a felony, which can cause legal problems for you.

So if you think that it might be a scam, but you might as well deposit it to see what happens... well, think again!

What About U.S. Freedom Checks? Are They Scams?

If you've heard commercials about U.S. Freedom Checks, you might be wondering if you'll find one in your mailbox and, if so, if it will be legitimate or counterfeit?

Despite the commercials' claims and implications, U.S. Freedom Checks aren't freebies worth tens of thousands of dollars that just show up in your mail. Rather, they are part of a marketing scheme designed to sell you a newsletter, which in turn will entice you to invest in Master LImited Plans (MLPs), which are a legitimate if somewhat overblown investment opportunity, according to Metro.us.

So if you do find a U.S. Freedom Check in your mail, and you haven't participated in one of the investments, be wary. It was most likely sent by a scammer hoping to capitalize on the hype surrounding the claims of magically huge returns.

What the Experts Say About Fake Check Scams

For tips on how to recognize and avoid check scams, I contacted Maleka Ali, Risk Management Consultant for Banker's Toolbox. As a company that helps banks manage risk and streamline compliance examinations, Banker's Toolbox is keenly aware of the dangers that check scams pose. Here's what Maleka Ali had to say:

Q: What legal consequences can you face if you mistakenly cash a fraudulent check?

A: Once the victim accepts the check for the scam and deposits it into their account, they become responsible for any losses. If the victim does not have enough money in the account, the bank can file litigation against the victim for any money owed to the bank. They can report the victim to reporting agencies such as ChexSystems, which will then make it difficult for them to open an account at another financial institution, and they might even face jail time.

Q: What can the financial consequences of check scams be?

A: Typically, the check is deposited into the victim's account and they are then asked to wire or transfer (via Western Union or Money Gram) overseas proceeds to cover miscellaneous processing or attorney fees related to the win.

Once the check is returned as counterfeit, the bank may immediately charge the victim for the amount of the counterfeit check along with bank return fees. If the bank files litigation or if the victim faces any other potential criminal charges as a result, they might even have to fork out more money to pay for attorney fees.

Q: If you are not sure whether a check is fraudulent, what steps should you take before cashing it?

A: Look up the business or individual listed as the maker of the check. Do not call the number listed on the check — this is typically a number that will call someone who is in on the scam.

Call the bank that the check is drawn on to verify that the account number is valid and that the name on the account matches the name on the check. Often, they will use a valid bank with a valid account number, but they will substitute a different name as the maker of the check.

See if they will verify if the funds are in the account. Use caution, however; just because there is money in the account doesn't mean that the maker of the account actually issued the check.

The most cautious scenario would be for you to instruct your bank to send the check for "Collection" to the maker's bank. They will physically send the check to the maker bank on a collection basis, collect the funds for you, and then deposit the funds into your account once received by the foreign financial institution. This might take anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks; however, once the funds are deposited into your account, you know they are good funds.

Q: What are some of the top signs that a check is fraudulent?

A: Legitimate sweepstakes will never require you to send money to cover any fees or processing. If they are pressuring you with a deadline (which is usually very short) that is also a sign that the check is fraudulent. Did you even enter the lottery or sweepstakes? If you didn't, then it's fraudulent.

If you received a notification from an email, was the email address something like Yahoo or Hotmail? Were there grammatical errors in the letter or email notifying you of your win?

Most often, the check will look legitimate. The maker and the bank listed on the check might also be legitimate, but this doesn't mean they actually issued that check. You should confirm that information before depositing.

Also, confirm that the bank 's routing number listed on the bottom of the check is the valid bank identification number. For example, they might list Bank of America as the issuing bank, but use Wells Fargo's identification number as the routing number. This is to delay the processing of the check to give scammers even more time to get away with the fraud.

Q: What steps are banks taking to protect their customers from check scams?

A: When a customer deposits a check, the bank tellers are merely processing the checks and most often are not validating whether the check is legitimate.

Depending on the customer's relationship and history with their financial institution, the bank will often not even place a hold on the funds. Even if a hold is placed, it will usually last no more than 5-10 days. However, it can take several weeks for the fraudulent check to be returned, especially if the check is drawn on a bank overseas.

A Final Word about Fake Check Scams:

There are reasons why you could legitimately receive checks in the mail — for example, the Corona relief checks that the government sent out — but not as an unexpected result of a sweepstakes win.

If you receive a check in the mail, don't just deposit it and hope that it goes through. Even if you don't wire the money that the scammers request, you could be in legal and financial trouble just for depositing the check.

If you have doubts, speak with your bank manager about how to verify that the check you received is legitimate. And be sure to brush up on the warning signs of sweepstakes scams to recognize check scams more easily.