The Routt County Sheriff's Office is warning residents to be vigilant of a new kind of consumer fraud: the Nigerian counterfeit check fraud.
A new take on the old Nigerian letter or e-mail scam, the cashier's check fraud reportedly had targeted Routt County residents last week.
The fraud occurs when the buyer of an online item gives the seller a cashier's check for far more than the item is worth. The buyer then asks the seller to send back the difference of that check to them. Because it is a cashier's check, the seller usually gets the funds immediately, wires the money and then days later, finds out the check was bad. The seller often is forced to cover thousands of dollars already transferred to the buyer.
Routt County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Murphy is investigating a case in Routt County, in which a couple was trying to sell a car online and were taken in by the international scam. The couple was able to avoid the fraud and contacted law enforcement officials.
"They did a great job of protecting themselves," Murphy said.
The couple had listed their car for sale on an Internet automotive sales Web site and was contacted by a foreign buyer. The buyer said that he was from the Middle East and that he had a U.S. agent who purchases vehicles and sends them overseas.
To purchase the car, the buyer said he needed to send a cashier's check for $6,500 more than the necessary amount for shipping costs. The buyer asked that the sellers of the car cash the check and send the extra money to the agent for shipping costs.
The cashier's check was postmarked from Lagos, Nigeria, though Murphy doubts that is where it originated.
Murphy said the targeted victims at first doubted the check would come, because the buyer had offered to pay more than what the vehicle was worth.
Fortunately, in the Routt County case, Murphy said, the sellers were skeptical. They took the check to a local bank, which deemed it was valid. But when they contacted the bank with the routing number on the check, bank employees said they had never issued a cashier's check with the number.
"To look at, it is a very good-looking cashier's check. There is nothing readily on it that you would discern as a fraudulent check," Murphy said.
Upon closer inspection with a magnifying glass, Murphy said, the signature on the check appears to be written on the check first -- a sign that it is a fake.
Murphy said that often times, the perpetrators of the scam proliferate their letters or e-mails with words such as "God Bless" and overly polite language to gain trust. The buyers also have several contact e-mails and phone numbers.
Solving these types of crimes can be difficult, Murphy said, because the perpetrators are often overseas, and they abandon contact information after the fraud is in motion.
"This is international. It is so vast," Murphy said.
The fraud is an offshoot of the Nigerian letter scam, in which perpetrators ask individuals to place large sums of money in overseas bank accounts. To do so, the victim has to pay transfer fees, often thousand of dollars, and never receives the promised money.
According to the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, buyers in the Nigerian counterfeit checks scam can fool sellers because banks often release funds immediately or after a one- or two-day holding period for cashier's checks.
Thinking the check has cleared, the seller wires the money, only later to find out that the check was fraudulent. The victim then becomes responsible for the full amount of the check.
The Internet Fraud Complaint Center, which the FBI oversees, cautions people to be wary of any purchasers proposing to conduct transactions in this manner and to take the steps necessary to ensure that a check has cleared fully before doing anything with the funds.
More information can be found online at www.ifccfbi.gov.