Beware of magic tricks when it comes to fraud

I just love a good magic show. Skilled illusionists make things happen right before our eyes that seem impossible. They will, for example, present us in the audience with a bikini clad woman, and after a puff of smoke, that woman is changed into a live tiger. Or, as any grandfather might demonstrate to his grandchild, the illusionist appears to separate the end of his thumb from the rest of the thumb to the wild amusement and awe of the toddler.

But when the secret of the trick is revealed, it all seems so simple and stupid: So simple and stupid that magicians, or illusionists, swear “never” to reveal the secret behind the illusion. An illusionist’s worst nightmare is having the secrets revealed. That’s what I have been as a consumer investigative reporter: an illusionist’s worst nightmare.

Magic or illusion is really nothing more than fraud. We in the audience are led to believe something to be true that is simply false.

Here is a magic trick that has stolen millions of dollars from people over the past couple of decades: certified, guaranteed, or cashier’s checks and money orders. Just how can a bank that has been verified and guaranteed later turn out to be a fraud?

Here’s a very common scenario:

Say you have something you would like to sell, like a used television. Many people turn to the various on-line classified ad web sites so the whole transaction would be done through e-mail exchanges and door-to-door shipping. You know your television is worth $500. But to get that price, you advertise the television at $600, or best offer. Sure enough, within 24 hours, you will find in your in-box an offer from a stranger for the full $600. You accept the offer, and now arrange payment.

The stranger offers to send you a certified, bank guaranteed cashier’s check for $600, which you agree to deposit before you send the television.

Sure enough, within a day or two, the check arrives, but it’s not for $600, it’s for $800. Being an honest person, rather than depositing the $800 check, you email the stranger to point out the error. The stranger responds by apologizing for the mistake. “The check was written by my secretary,” the stranger writes. “It was supposed to be for $600, but my secretary made a mistake. Tell you what,” the stranger continues, “since you are such an honest person, keep another $50 dollars for yourself as a reward. Just deposit the check, and refund to me $150 via Western Union.”

“Deal!” you say. Wow … you get another 50 bucks out of the transaction for your television just for being honest.

So, now, to be absolutely sure that the bank guaranteed certified check is really good, you trot to your local bank. That’s where you find the tellers you’ve known personally for years. You ask the teller to be sure the check is not a fraud. The teller calls the bank which issued the check. She gives the routing numbers to the issuing bank (routing numbers are those are the numbers on the bottom of the check). Your teller also gives the amount of the check, and the name on the check to the issuing bank. And sure enough, your teller says the issuing bank told her that the certified check is, in fact, real and perfectly good. The money is set aside, and being held at the issuing bank, waiting for that particular certified check to arrive.

So, you confidently deposit the $800 check. Next, you run down to Western Union and give them $150 dollars to send to the stranger. Next, you package the television and send it to the stranger at the out-of-state (or out of country) address. Finally, you run down to the television store to use the $550 dollars from the transaction as a down payment toward a much better television for your family.

Perfect transaction? Oh no. You’re about to find out you’re the victim of a magic trick.

A few days after all this, your bank notifies you that you are overdrawn in your checking account. It turns out, that bank-guaranteed, certified check that was personally verified by your long-term teller friend is actually a fraud. Now, you’ve lost the television you sent to the stranger, you’ve lost the $150 you’ve sent to the stranger from your account, and your bank is charging you fee after fee after fee for overdraft and bounced check charges.

How could that happen?

It’s a magic trick: an illusion, and here’s how the illusion works (it’s really quite simple, like all magic tricks, once you know the secret): The stranger did, indeed, take out a certified check for $800 at that issuing bank. But when the stranger went to his home, he simply made duplicate copies of the check. Then, later, after he dealt with you and maybe hundreds of others around the country or around the world, he was careful to be the first to the bank with the real guaranteed check. That made all the other duplicate checks fraud.

Can the thief be caught? It is extremely unlikely, since false names and identifications are used. And when it comes to that Western Union transaction (or any other similar money-wire transfer with a different company), remember when you send money, it can be picked up anywhere. Wire transfer companies usually require a name of the recipient, and a password upon which the sender and receiver agree. So, while the stranger might claim to be in Cleveland, he might actually be in Miami and can pick up the money and disappear there.

In cases like this, the only protection against the illusion is to only send money to someone you actually know, and never to a stranger.

Today, the illusion exists in many forms where people receive certified checks for supposed stock payments in the mail (people are asked to return processing fees by wire transfer), people receive certified checks for supposed lottery winnings in the mail (again, send the processing fees by wire transfer), or even supposed refunds, death benefits, or tax refunds.

Now you know the magic trick. It sure is a simple fraud once you know the secret to the illusion.

Written by Bill Gephardt