Consumer Hero #3
You've already met Paul English. He was this blog's very first Consumer Hero, thanks to his Web site that tells all of us how to reach a real live customer-service person quickly in hundreds of companies, thus avoiding telephone hell.
And you've also met Edgar Dworsky, a former consumer-affairs television reporter and consumer-protection official who currently monitors the world of consumer news and outrage through two informative Web sites: consumerworld.org and mouseprint.org. He calls himself Mr. Consumer and that's certainly a good label from Consumer Hero #2.
Now meet Consumer Hero #3: Shawn Mosch. Mosch probably doesn't consider herself a hero; rather she'd tell you she was a victim--of a pernicious fake-check scam that has been rapidly growing in all shapes and sizes these past few years. Mosch knows that all too well. Because after she became a victim, she launched a Web site to help other victims. And that's what makes her my hero today. Consumer advocates and law-enforcement officials often cite Scam Victims United as a key resource in their battle against these check scams.
Begun in 2003, the Web site now has 2,616 current members registered to its message board of 4,000 postings, all a valuable tool for those who have just discovered they've been scammed. And those numbers are growing quickly: Last year, the number of fraudulent and counterfeit checks that banks reported to the federal government totaled 88,986--that's more than triple the 28,670 reported in 2000. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, the number of reports of fraudulent and counterfeit checks grew by 45 percent.
In Mosch's case, she and her husband were trying to sell a 1961 Buick online for $1,600. The Nigerian buyer said someone in the states owed him $8,800. He was going to have that person send the Mosches a cashier's check for that amount and they were to deduct the car's price and then wire the buyer the difference. Shawn said she and her husband were very skeptical, so they asked their bank repeatedly if the check was legit. And repeatedly they were assured there was no problem. But of course there was.
These check scams rely on the vagaries of the banking system to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers. Federal rules require banks to release the funds from a consumer's deposit quickly, usually within one to five business days, depending on the kind of check. However, it can take weeks before a bank discovers a check is fraudulent. So when a teller says "the check has cleared," the teller is "usually thinking in terms of bank rules, that the hold time is over, and the consumer now has access to the funds," said Susan Grant, director of the National Fraud Information Center.
But the average consumer thinks that phrase means "the check is not fraudulent," Grant added.
Scam Victims United is worth reading even if you're not a victim. Sure, you may say, "How can anyone be that stupid?" Indeed, many should have been more careful. But even the skeptical ones, like Mosch, got taken, partly because they were assured by their banks that the checks were legit. So once you read some of the sad stories, you will hopefully become even more careful about questionable transactions, especially on the Internet, where you don't know who you are dealing with.
For more details, read my story in today's paper, which also features some of the questions you should ask before you cash that check. The answers could save you from being scammed.
Meanwhile, if you have any nominations for a consumer hero, please write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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