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Watchdog: Seadrift woman avoids popular money order scam

Jan. 4, 2011 at 5:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 3, 2011 at 7:04 p.m.


HAVE A QUESTION FOR 'WATCHDOG'?To submit questions, e-mail watchdog@vicad.com or call Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza at 361-580-6519. No topic is off-limits.

Marge Stoddard avoided a popular scam by relying on her healthy skepticism.

The 77-year-old Seadrift retiree said she hopes her story teaches you to remain similarly cautious.

Stoddard, like so many others, tried to sell an item online - in this case a $200 Raleigh bicycle.

After a short while, she received a bite. A person claiming to be a woman named Julie Smith sent Stoddard an e-mail.

"... I will like to pay for it and my mode of payment will be via money order, which you can cash instantly at your bank," the scammer wrote. "The payment will be sent down to your place via UPS courier service."

The scammer added that a "personal shipping agent" would visit Stoddard's home to pick up the bicycle.

"I will include his payment together with yours and once you have received the money order, cash it instantly at your bank," the scammer wrote. "Then you will deduct your payment and have the rest paid to the shipping agent via Western Union. He will be able to make arrangement to take his flight to your residence then and pickup the shipment."

As if this convoluted means for buying a bike wasn't enough reason to doubt the deal's legitimacy, Stoddard received a call from "Julie Smith."

Instead of calling Stoddard directly, the scammer used a third-party telephone relay company to pose a question: Why hadn't Stoddard sent the money?

Stoddard hadn't sent the money because she sniffed out the scam, which works like this:

A scam artist offers to buy an item you have for sale and says he or she will send a money order for an amount greater than your asking price.

The purchasing agent scenario already described is a common reason scammers give for doing so. The problem, however, is the money order, or cashier's check, is counterfeited.

Once you cash the document and send the difference to the scammer, you're on the hook with the bank for the whole amount. Banks, after all, don't always immediately catch a counterfeit - but they will eventually.

This cannot be stressed enough: Banks hold you financially responsible if you cash a counterfeit money order, even if you did not know the document was fake.

The money order scam is certainly not new, but its occurrence is on the rise, according to local police and national reports.

The reasons? First, technology makes it easy to forge financial instruments. Secondly, scores of people now buy and sell items online.

"We get calls about it monthly," said Sgt. Felix Appelt, a Victoria Police Department crime prevention specialist.

To avoid this and other similar scams, Appelt recommends you:

Avoid deals in which the buyer insists on sending more money than your asking price.

Remain cautious about dealing with out-of-state and international customers when selling items online. It's usually safer to do face-to-face, cash deals.

Re-consider the deal if the buyer demands using purchasing agents, especially for a small-ticket item.

"Do a little investigating - a simple Google search of the person's phone number," Appelt said. "Make sure the telephone number coincides with the area they say they're from. A little bit of preparation and checking may save you a lot of money and time cleaning up the mess on the back end."

If you suspect a scam artist has targeted you, call Appelt at 361-485-3808, or visit www.VictoriaPD.com.

Stoddard didn't call police, but she did send the scammer a scathing e-mail.

"Hello Julie Smith," Stoddard wrote. "I am declining the sale of my bicycle to you. After reading your e-mail, I have come to the conclusion that this is a scam. The sale is off!"

Gabe Semenza is the public service editor for the Advocate. Comment on this story at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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