It seemed like a dream opportunity for the local hair salon and spa, Studio M.
An Italian supermodel named Joanna Opoka needed four massages a week through November. She would be staying across the street at the Eagle Harbor Inn and Studio M was in perfect proximity to suit her needs.
Acquiescing to the request, the studio soon received $4,000 in U.S. Postal Service money orders to pay for the massages. The checks looked legitimate, they were even shipped by DHL, but soon “Mirella Baroni,” the supposed liaison between Opoka and Studio M was asking the salon to wire money to Malaysia because they had overpaid for Studio M’s services.
It was then that Carisa Crone, part-owner of Studio M, became suspicious.
“It was really strange,” Crone said. “They sent us this money order, they were e-mailing almost every day. We were blocking out all this time for our massage therapist, the model looked legitimate and even had a Web site. But something didn’t smell right.”
Crone took the checks to her bank where, upon closer examination, employees found the money orders to be fraudulent.
Studio M’s experience is far from unique, fake check scams are the fastest-growing form of fraud in the United States, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Consumer League. And scammers are no longer solely targeting vulnerable individuals, they are increasingly directing their efforts at businesses with complex schemes designed to swindle money and gain access to personal account information.
“The fake-check scam has been at the top of our list for months,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumer League. NCL acts as an advocacy and watchdog group for U.S. consumers.
“Our banking system has an unfortunate glitch and that is that banks are required to cash checks and honor them within a certain number of days,” Greenberg said. “Consumers assume if a check clears, that check has been proven to be a valid. That’s not always the case.”
Once the money shows up in an unsuspecting person’s account, the person perpetrating the fraud will ask for a portion of the money back. When a check eventually does bounce or is declared fraudulent, which can be up to three weeks later, the person who deposited the check is responsible for any money that was spent.
“The success of this fraud is not contingent on how much money you have,” said Susan Grant, the director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. “In this case people have the money because they are given it and you are sending back real cash to the scammers. Essentially they are stealing money from banks and credit unions and leaving consumers holding the bag. Everyone loses except for the con artist.”
According to Wells Fargo’s Washington State communications manager, Lara Underhill, fake checks pose some problems for banks in trying to determine which ones are legitimate and who is trying to defraud the institution.
“If we think the person trying to give us the check is the one trying to defraud us we would handle that differently than a customer who has received a fraudulent check,” she said.
It is this distinction that opens some individuals to fines or jail-time if they are prosecuted for cashing fraudulent checks.
“You can be prosecuted criminally, even if you didn’t have the intent,” Greenberg said. “They argue that if you cashed it, it’s your fault. Then it’s your word against theirs.”
Although fake check scams have occurred for some time now, it is only recently that they have been duplicated on such a wide scale, NCL notes.
On the island, Bainbridge police have logged over 80 reported fraud cases this year that range from fake-check scams to identity theft. Even a member of the BIPD has been the victim of credit card scam this year, which attests to the range of people that can fall victim to fraud.
Also being hit is the U.S. Postal Service. Many victims, as in the case of Studio M, receive forged postal service money orders.
“They have targeted our postal service checks and they are counterfeiting postage as well,” said Joe Stephenson, an inspector in the Seattle branch of the United States Postal Investigation Service (USPIS). “They are hitting our bottom line, so there is a great incentive here to go after them.”
According to Stephenson, fake check scams are popular because they involve little risk and can be pulled off with a printer and a little creativity.
“I see them every day and there are a lot of them, “ Stephenson said. “The only limitation to these scams is how much ink the criminal can get in their printer, and they are printing them out as fast as they can.”
In a coordinated operation last year, USPIS officers confiscated fake checks from national airmail centers over a two-month period. The net total of those checks exceeded a billion dollars. The saturation of these fake checks on the U.S. population is part of the reason why they are still successful.
“These people send out fake checks by the hundreds of thousands,” said Kitsap Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Wilson. “Generally one or two people bite thinking they can get something for nothing and that’s all it takes. Then they’ll launder money through your account, raid your account and next thing you know you have nothing.”
According to Stephenson, it is hard to prosecute fake-check cases because most of the acts are perpetrated out of state, or most likely, out of country. Many times there investigators and banks freeze transactions before there is a loss of money, and when there is a loss it is usually around $3,000 on average, Greenberg said. These factors often make prosecutors uninterested in following up on criminal charges.
“Essentially you are sending cash through a money transfer service, even if they have to present an ID to claim the cash its usually a fake, so how do you trace it?” Grant said. “If you are an investigator you have to track people through phone numbers of email addresses, very often they are in other countries and prosecuting someone in another country is fraught with problems.”
NCL, CFA and the USPS, like other organizations, are using the Internet to warn people about the dangers, launching sites such as fakechecks.org to help people determine if they are being scammed.
“Basically, if you receive a check that you are not expecting, I would say, guaranteed, it’s fraud,” Stephenson said. “I’ve seen so many of those checks and they are frauds every single time, even if they look legitimate.
“If you get a scam, don’t reply, delete it immediately, if you happen to respond to one you will get inundated with more, we have seen that in the past.”
For Studio M, it was a close call, even if they only stood to lose a couple thousand dollars.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but this is a brand new business and we put our blood, sweat and tears into this place,” Crone said. “People like to trust each other in this town, because that is how it is, but taking a hit like that would have really hurt us.”