Routing # 321076470

How to Spot and Avoid Fake Check Scams

September 28, 2023 5 mins

Whether it’s a credit card breach or a check cashing scam, fraud happens every day. Unfortunately, Patelco members can be victims as well, even if you’re digitally and financially savvy. Here, we break down common check cashing scams and how to spot them.

How do fake check scams work?

A fake check scam is when a fraudster asks you to help them cash a check. There are several variations of this scam, but they all involve legitimate-looking checks — certified and cashier checks too — and a story about why the fraudster needs you to cash the check.

Once they have convinced you to help them, they might ask you to meet them at a cash checking location or they may simply mail you the check to deposit at your credit union. (Note that many check cashing businesses require your personal information and/or financial account details.)

Within a few days or weeks, the check will bounce (either because it’s fake or because there’s no funds in the account the check came from) – leaving you on the hook for the amount with your credit union or with the check cashing business.

There are several variations of the fake check scam, but they all involve legitimate-looking checks — personal, corporate, cashier’s or certified — and a story about why the fraudster needs you to cash the check.”

What are the common types of fake check scams?

Fake check scams take many forms – here’s a few common fake check scam examples according to the Federal Trade Commission:

  1. Sad stories — The fraudster desperately needs cash to pay for a medical operation, a funeral, or travel tickets to visit a sick relative. They may approach you outside a check cashing location or financial institution.
  2. Overpayments – A person buys something from you online and then “accidentally” pays you too much. They then ask you to refund the balance, perhaps with a mobile payment app, wire transfer or gift cards.
  3. Car wrap decals – Fraudsters place an ad online or in a classified newspaper about getting paid to wrap your car in an advertising decal. When you contact them, they send you a check that is supposed to pay for the decal installer. You cash the check and mail the money to the installer – who isn’t an installer but is just the fraudsters.
  4. Mystery shopping – Fraudsters put ads out pretending to hire people as “mystery shoppers.” Your first job: go evaluate a retailer that sells gift cards, money orders, or does money transfers like Western Union or MoneyGram. You’ll receive a check to buy the gift cards, money orders or wire transfers, and will be instructed to deposit it to your checking account and then use the money to buy the gift cards or money orders. After the fraudster has received the gift cards or money orders, their check will bounce, leaving you on the hook for the money spent.
  5. Personal assistants – An online ad offers employment as a personal assistant. When you’re hired, your new “boss” sends you a check and asks you to buy gift cards or equipment with the money. Once you give them the goods, your “boss” disappears – and the check is fake.
  6. Sweepstakes prizes — Fraudsters contact you to let you know you’ve won a “prize”, and then they send you a check to cover the taxes or shipping charges associated with that prize. The fraudsters then ask you to cash that check and send money to cover the “shipping” or the “tax.” Legitimate sweepstakes don’t work like this.
  7. Unexpected checks  — If you receive a check unexpectedly, especially from someone you do not know or were not expecting payment from, be cautious.

Cashier’s check scams

Cashier’s checks — checks that are issued by a bank and sold to a customer — are considered relatively risk free and are often used as a trusted form of payment. However, they’ve become an attractive way for scammers to target victims.

These scams are often set up just like the scenarios outlined above. For example, you might sell goods online and the buyer sends you a “cashier’s check” for the price you agreed on, and you ship your goods to the buyer. By the time you and your bank discover that the cashier’s check was fraudulent, the buyer, the money and your goods are long gone. (Another variation of this is the overpayment scam above.)

How to tell if a check is fake

Beside the situations described above, you can also examine the check for telltale signs that it’s fake.

  1. Check the security features. Legitimate checks often have security features to prevent counterfeiting, including watermarks, security threads, holograms, micro printing and color-shifting ink.
  2. Inspect the paper quality. If the paper feels unusually thin or lacks the usual texture, it could be a red flag. Legitimate checks are usually printed on high-quality paper with a distinct texture.
  3. Examine the layout. Look for any irregularities in the layout of the check, like the position of the logo, the bank name and the address. Counterfeit checks might have crooked printing or alignment issues.
  4. Check the information. Discrepancies in the name of the issuing bank, the account number and the routing number can be a sign of a counterfeit check. You can easily search for a routing number to find out what financial institution it’s from.
  5. Look for misspellings and errors. Try to spot any spelling mistakes, grammatical errors or improper fonts.
  6. Inspect the signature. If the check includes a signature, compare it to the genuine signature of an individual organization.

What to do if you are scammed or targeted

When in doubt don’t cash that check! Remember that there’s no such thing as free money – and no such thing as easy money either. If you think you’ve been a target or victim of a fake check scam, we’re your trusted resource, so contact us – we’re available at your local branch and at 800.358.8228.

Additionally, report any fake check scam to the Federal Trade Commission And if the scam involved the mail (such as a fake check mailed to you), report it to the US Postal Inspection Service at


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