WHILE I was working as a crime journalist I had occasion to put my wife's Ford Fiesta up for sale in Auto Trader, a publication respected by the motoring trade and with an established publishing history. So when I got an offer on the car I had no reason to doubt its legality and the buyer said he was willing to pay the full asking price of £3000 and would get back to me.
When he contacted me again he said he asked if I could do him a favour if he sent me a cheque for £5000. He wanted me to bank my money and transfer the balance to another client to whom he owed £2000. Initially I saw nothing wrong in that and awaited the arrival of his cheque.
While at work I got an email from Scotland Yard asking us to publish a warning about a new cheque overpayment scam – the very same scam I was about to fall victim to. Had I not received that email I would have become one of the latest victim's and here's how it works.
The bait: a response to your ad or online auction posting, offering to pay with a cheque. At the last minute, the so-called buyer (or the buyer's 'agent') comes up with a reason for writing the cheque for more than the purchase price, and asks you to transfer back the difference after you deposit the cheque.
The catch: if you deposit the cheque, you lose. Typically, the cheques are counterfeit, but they're good enough to fool bank staff, but when they bounce, you are liable for the entire amount.
Your Safety Net: don't accept a cheque for more than your selling price, no matter how tempting the plea or convincing the story. Ask the buyer to write the cheque for the purchase price. If the buyer sends the incorrect amount, return the cheque. Don't send the goods.
This scam is very similar to a secret shoppers scam that caught out thousands of people in America and Canada,.
The conmen advertise for "secret shoppers", saying they'll pay you to help with a survey on money transfer companies.People who respond are sent a cheque, typically for £500 to £1,500, told to pay it into their bank account then wire the money as cash through MoneyGram and report how efficient the service is.
But the cash you send will be collected by crooks who'll vanish. And the cheque you've paid into your bank will initially seem to have cleared but will turn out to be fraudulent or stolen.