Beware of the Latest Check Scam

10 ways to tell if that check in the mail is fake.

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The check and accompanying flyer look deceptively realistic: “Publishers Clearing House presents PCH Search & Win,” it says, before declaring the recipient an “InstaPrize” winner of $1 million. An enclosed check contains what appears to be an initial payment of $3,990. Even a reasonably skeptical consumer might be convinced he had actually won cash.

But it’s all a giant scam. According to the real Publishers Clearing House, fraudsters have taken the company’s logo and sent out these checks to unsuspecting victims. They steal money by either convincing the victims to pay fees or taxes upfront, or by capturing their bank account information when the check is cashed. The check, of course, would later bounce. PCH says it is working with law enforcement in the United States and Canada to shut down the scam artists, but it’s hard to stay ahead of them.

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So how can consumers protect themselves? The first step is to look at any “free money” with suspicion, and never attempt to cash a check received unexpectedly in the mail without thoroughly investigating its origins first. There are also some tricks to quickly identifying a scam before becoming a victim. Here are 10 signs that the check in the mail is fake:

1) The envelope, which is labeled with the Publishers Clearing House logo, originated from Canada.

2) The company offering you the check asks you to first pay “taxes” before handing over any money. (Taxes are always paid directly to the government, not to the sweepstakes company.)

3) You need to pay a fee before claiming your prize.

4) You are asked to cover shipping and handling costs, or any kind of delivery fee, before getting the money.

5) You are asked for your credit card or bank account information at any point. (This request can come over email, by telephone, or by mail. Regardless of the medium, do not provide this information.)

6) The company asks you to purchase a product in order to get the money. (Legitimate sweepstakes companies do not make such requests.)

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7) The check arrives in something other than a certified envelope.

8) The money is described as an “advance” on your prize.

9) You are instructed to wire money to someone.

10) That it came in the mail at all. Do you really think anyone would legitimately give you free money? If you think you can outsmart the scammers by taking the fake check to a check cashing station, think again: Once the check cashing station realizes the check is a fake, they’ll come after you for the money.

The bottom line: Any check that arrives unexpectedly in the mail is most likely fake. Don’t be taken in by the scam. For more information, check out www.fakechecks.org, which is run by the National Consumers League.