The Color of Money

When times are tough, the scam artists get busy

Washington Post Writers GroupAugust 2, 2009 

— When times get tight, and you're looking for ways to cut costs or raise cash, don't let your desperation make you easy pickings for con artists.

Take heed of several scams the Better Business Bureau says are increasingly snaring consumers. For example, the BBB is warning people about fake check scams, which typically require victims to deposit a check into their bank account and then give or wire money back to the scammers.

The BBB says victims of this scam are found in primarily three ways:

They answer an e-mail or letter claiming they've won a lottery or sweepstakes. Victims are sent a fake check, which the con artist claims is part of their winnings. They are told to deposit the check and send back money that allegedly will be used to pay taxes or administrative fees. In June, a Nebraska woman lost more than $58,000 thinking she had won $11 million in a Jamaica lottery.

They think they are being paid to evaluate a store or service as a mystery shopper. The victim is told to deposit a check and use the money for shopping trips. Often included in the list of stores to evaluate is Western Union or MoneyGram. The scammers instruct their targets to wire money to test the wiring service.

They are selling something online. A would-be purchaser sends a check for the item, but it's made out for more than the agreed-upon price. The seller is told to cash the check and wire the difference.

The Consumer Federation of America found that nearly a third of respondents in one of its surveys said they had been approached with some form of fake check scam. At least 1.3 million people have fallen for a fake check scam, losing on average $3,000 to $4,000, according to the CFA.

What's so dastardly about this scam is the checks look so darn real. Even bank employees have a hard time telling the difference. Your bank might initially clear the check. But once the check works its way through the banking system and is discovered to be a fake, the depositor is on the hook and has to pay back the bank. For more about this scam, go to www.fakechecks.org.

Looking to save money by buying a used car? Well, be careful. The BBB and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say "car cloning" is on the rise.

In this scam, a crook will take the unique manufacturer-installed Vehicle Identification Number from a legally owned or junked vehicle and use it to forge documents for a stolen vehicle of a similar make and model.

Last month, 20 defendants were sentenced for their involvement in a car-cloning scheme run out of Georgia. Members of the conspiracy stole dozens of vehicles worth more than $1 million, according to the FBI. Earlier this year, the FBI shut down a large car-cloning ring based in southern Florida. In that case, more than 1,000 cars were sold to witting and unwitting buyers in 20 states and several countries. Authorities estimated losses of more than $25 million to consumers, auto insurers and other victims.

Carfax, which sells vehicle history information, estimates that more than 225,000 of the 1.5 million vehicles stolen each year end up with VINs from a legally owned vehicle and are resold.

The FBI warns that if you buy a stolen vehicle with a fake VIN and its true ownership is discovered, the car can be confiscated. If you've borrowed to buy the car, you'll still be responsible for any outstanding loan.

The BBB and FBI advise used car buyers to make sure the VIN on the dashboard, the driver's side door sticker, the car's frame and paperwork (title documents, service records, etc.) all match. If you are buying from a private seller, be sure to carefully check the title against the person's driver's license.

By next year, hopefully car cloning will be nearly impossible to pull off. That's because the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System should be fully operational. This Department of Justice database, operated by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, is an electronic system that will eventually link to all state and the District of Columbia motor vehicle departments.

Once all the jurisdictions are feeding the database with information, if a car is titled in one state, a criminal should not be able to steal its VIN and use it on another vehicle elsewhere. The database would indicate that the VIN is already in use. This search engine will also allow consumers to find information on the vehicle's title, most recent odometer reading and, in some cases, historical theft data. For more information about the database, go to . www.nmvtis.gov

Look, these scams pop up in good times and bad. Just stay vigilant, and always check things out.

Michelle Singletary, the personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com singletarym@washpost.com.

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