Police: Beware wave of scams involving Western Union, fraudulent checks
Kyle Feldscher | AnnArbor.com
Sometimes it’s a fake lottery, and a random email announces you won. Sometimes it’s a person offering to pay you thousands of dollars more than your asking price for an item on Craigslist. Sometimes it’s a job as a mystery shopper who is sent thousands of dollars and then told to wire it using Western Union or MoneyGram.
But, in nearly all of those cases, the person on the other computer is running a scam.
Officials in the Saline Police Department and Pittsfield Township Public Safety Department both have 1-inch-thick stacks of paper on their desk, all of them cases of well-meaning people scammed by someone they’ve never met. Pittsfield Township community coordinator Rich Coleman said people across all walks of life have fallen victim to these types of scams, simply because they didn’t read the fine print.
“If it’s too good to be true, it is, particularly as it relates to these types of MoneyGram scams,” Coleman said. “If you get someone telling you, ‘We’re going to send you a check, you keep the portion you’re entitle to, but send us the balance,’ it’s not good. It’s not good at all.”
The scams are reported fairly frequently — about 3 or 4 come into the Saline Police Department every week. However, officials estimate twice that number aren’t being reported because the victims are simply too embarrassed to say anything about it once they realize they’ve been had.
Saline police Det. Don Lupi said the common denominators in almost all of these types of scams are fraudulent checks and money transfer services like Western Union and MoneyGram. He said the unwitting participants in these scams are usually sent a fraudulent check that looks very real and is usually between $1,000 and $5,000.
In one case Saline police investigated this month, the recipient was told he was going to be a mystery shopper. The 73-year-old man would receive a money transfer from a woman in Montana with instructions to buy about $30 of products from Walmart and to wire the remainder of the check, which was generally between $250 and $1,000, to Nigeria and other African countries.
The man did this about 6 times before he was contacted by a Western Union representative telling him he might be involved in money laundering. The Saline man stopped using Western Union after that, but the Montana woman began sending him money orders. He took the money orders to the Saline Post Office and was told they were fraudulent — he never cashed them and stopped all of the transactions.
Lupi said the Saline man didn’t lose any money out of the deal, but was instead sending money from fraudulent checks along to someone overseas. When those checks were discovered to be fraudulent, the woman in Montana would then be responsible for the money.
Both the Saline man and Montana woman would not be charged with a crime because there was no specific intent, Lupi said; the man from Saline and the woman from Montana didn’t know they were committing a crime.
“Because our country doesn’t have a streamlined check verification system, it falls back on the person cashing it,” Lupi said. “The woman from Montana is out the money and someone in Nigeria has the money.”
With the crimes being started, and ended, in foreign countries, there’s a large amount of difficulty in fully investigating these types of scams, Lupi said.
“With most police departments being small and local, we don’t have the resources of manpower to investigate into another country,” Lupi said. “With the mass volume of these that come into all police agencies, the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) doesn’t have the resources to check them out.”
These types of scams leave people like Andy Gammo, the owner of Village Party Store in Saline, in a tough place.
As a Western Union outlet, Gammo’s shop was the place the 73-year-old Saline man was receiving and sending the money transfers at and, though the transactions were a part of a scam, Gammo was simply doing his business.
Gammo said he’s usually on the look for someone suspicious who might be receiving $3,000 and sending $2,400 of it to someone else. He said he’s been made aware of scams in the past and has helped stop them.
“If we don’t catch it, Western Union catches it, but with transactions like that we catch it all the time,” Gammo said.
“We have to be alert all the time, I mean, we’re in this business so we have to be alert.”
There are tell-tale signs a scam is taking place, Coleman said.
One of the main signs is a contact telling you to use immediate service on Money Gram or Western Union, as opposed to next-day service. By sending it immediately, there’s no way the sender can get the money back, Coleman said. While it might seem like a clichÃ©, broken English or worse-than-usual grammar is also usually a sign of a scammer, he said.
If someone is sent a check and believes it might be a fraud, Coleman and Lupi both encouraged people to simply ask for help, either from police or from officials at a bank. There’s also a website Coleman said is a great resource, even if it’s seemingly obviously named — www.fakecheck.org.
There are often specific details as well, such as exactly where to go to transfer the money, break downs of exactly how the money should be spent and what will be received and other instructions make the scams seem legitimate. However, scammers usually give themselves away by sending money before any action is taken.
“There are legitimate companies that do this. They’ll give you money after you do it, not before,” Coleman said.
There are other scams to look out for as well, including fake jobs on Craigslist, an Internet classifieds site.
In July, 17-year-old Saline woman was sent a check for $3,490 after she accepted a nanny job she found on Craigslist. She was told to deduct $300 for herself and buy toys for the children with the rest, but was then told to send $2,898 to a Vermont man through Western Union, according to a police report. After she sent the money, the Saline girl never heard back from the original woman who had made contact with her.
In 2008, another Saline man accepted a “job” as a mystery shopper and bought $60 in products from various national corporations and was told to evaluate the experience, as a first assignment. His second assignment was to evaluate either Western Union or Money Gram by transferring $1,997.72 and, in a separate transaction, $178.98. The man was paid $250 for his job, but would be out of the money once the checks he transferred were determined to be fraudulent.
“You’re still responsible for the money, and the bank will deduct it out of your account if the check is fraudulent,” Lupi said.