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Dodging the Cashier Check Scam

Dodging the Cashier Check Scam

A short e-mail arrived in my inbox, inquiring whether I still translate documents from German into English. I do, and replied as such. I didn’t pay much attention to the sender’s name, the e-mail address, or the subject line: “Translator Needed ASAP.”

His reply came almost immediately, thanking me for my quick response and asking me how much it would cost to translate an attached document. Because it seemed that this was a legitimate inquiry that would involve an initial small time commitment on my part, I started a quick research, as I always do when a potential client reaches me other than through a direct referral. I was not yet alarmed that this might be a scam. And this con artist was not your usual Nigerian prince.

The document was a lengthy, well-written medical paper on the effects of smoking on the human body, with a two page-long bibliography that included an addendum of methodically listed scientific resources that were diligently quoted in the text. This was not a cut and paste job, but someone’s researched work. Nicely formatted and professionally presented. I searched the sender’s name, Joseph Anderson, and yes, there were a few Dr. Andersons - one even cited as the co-author of a paper on the comparison of diabetic smokers and non-smokers who undergo amputations. So far, so good.

I sent my price proposal and immediately got a reply back, which triggered my suspicion that something was askew:

Thank You very much for the reply, i [sic] am pleased with your price, i will be making payment via cashier check, i will need your full name an address so i can issue out your payment ASAP.

Ah, the cashier check scam. Many freelancers and independent contractors become targets. And since the scammers hide behind a veil of legitimacy and mention a freelancer’s professional line of work and specialty, the suggestion to pay with a cashier check usually comes up only after a back and forth of legitimate-seeming e-mails (which cost us precious working hours).

Not in this case, though. My scammer was impatient, an amateur.

I ignored his e-mail and received an impolite nudge the day after:

Hello, i am still waiting for your reply.

I decided to play along and answered that I would draw up a contract, that I would need his full address, and that I don’t accept cashier checks. The reply came immediately:

Thank You for the reply, i will be paying via Cashier check, let me know if you are OK with that? Regards.

I replied that no, I won’t accept cashier checks.

And I never heard from him again.

What exactly is a cashier check scam?

A freelancer receives a cashier check from a “client” that is above the amount agreed upon. The client assures the freelancer not to worry, to deposit the check, and send back the overpaid amount in a few days. The cashier check is cleared by the bank, and the freelancer assumes the money has been deposited and sends the client the overpaid amount.

A few days later, the bank informs the freelancer that the cashier check was counterfeit. The freelancer loses the money that was sent back to the client - and might even be asked by his/her own bank to cover the amount of the fake check.

The scam works because cashier checks have a reputation of legitimacy, are seen as risk-free, and are misconceived as quickly available. When an account holder presents a cashier check for deposit, the bank will usually make the funds available within 1-5 business days, although the check (particularly if it was issued from an international bank) may take much longer than that to clear (sometimes up to a month).

The check given to the freelancer is counterfeit but looks real; it is drawn on a real account with real funds in it. Once the freelancer’s bank is alerted that the check is fraudulent, however, the transaction is reversed and the freelancer's account is debited.

There are tools at your disposal to help you spot a scam like that, even before a cashier check as payment option comes up. I would suggest following these steps to scrutinize every potential client who doesn’t come through a direct referral. It could help you avoid becoming the next victim of a con artist.

[Related: Avoid Being a Tax Scam Victim: Five Warning Signs That It’s NOT the IRS Calling]

The subject line and the body of the e-mail.

  • Are the words misspelled?
  • Does the writer use lower and upper case letters randomly?
  • Are there grammatical or spelling mistakes?
  • Does it seem that words, whole sentences, or paragraphs were copied and pasted into the body of the e-mail and have different styling (fonts, font sizes, font weights)?
  • Is your name misspelled?
  • Does the potential client offer only a vague description of the work needed or the scope of the project and its deadline?

All these could be red flags.

Don’t be fooled when the sender refers to a social network, like LinkedIn, or a professional organization or job bank that you actually belong to, or mentions a colleague's or past client’s name. Those details can be easily found online and associated with you, since you are most likely listed in public databases as a freelancer or have a website that divulges those details.

The sender’s name and e-mail address.

  • Google the sender’s name. In my case, the name seemed legitimate and on the surface confirmed the scammer’s ask (a doctor wanting to translate a research paper). The scammer could have done the same research as I, though, and adjusted his/her inquiry accordingly.
  • Scrutinize the sender’s e-mail address. In my case, the address was honeyfans2010@yahoo.com (not really professional), but I have had real clients who have used far more ludicrous e-mail addresses. Google the address as-is, and then also add the prefix mailto: (in my case mailto: honeyfans2010@yahoo.com). This will also catch an e-mail address that is embedded in a page’s HTML source code. After searching my scammer’s address, a Twitter user came up, a video game enthusiast. (I am not saying that he is the scammer. It might be that his e-mail got hacked and the scam e-mails were sent using his account, under his name.)
  • That raises another important point: Secure your e-mail account, and all other accounts, by using two-factor authentication and come up with strong passwords so that your account cannot be hacked and scam e-mails cannot be sent in your name.
  • Run the full e-mail header (learn how to reveal it here) through this online tool and follow the sender’s IP address back to its source. This information can be helpful if you decide to file a complaint.
  • If the client claims to represent a company, look it up on Better Business Bureau or Google it and search for the e-mail sender’s name on the company’s website. Then send an e-mail to that contact, using his/her business e-mail and inquire whether the e-mail query you received was legitimate.

[Related: Health Insurance: Five Steps Toward Staying Informed]

Attachments and plagiarism alerts.

  • Open attachments with care! Gmail has a preview feature that doesn’t actually download the Word/PDF attachment, but lets you read it and copy text from it. It goes without saying that you have to have the latest malware and antivirus software version installed on your computer.
  • If you are asked to translate/copyedit/rewrite a text, check if the copy has been plagiarized. Use this online tool to copy/paste the text to analyze whether the exact text has already been published online, and where. In my case, no plagiarism was detected. That said, the text might not be online - but that doesn’t prove it is the sender’s to use.

Payment options.

  • Never agree to provide work without signing a contract first. No legitimate client would urge you to start working without one.
  • Never accept cashier checks as payments, even from clients that haven’t raised any red flags.
  • Never accept personal checks from new clients.
  • Be especially alert when the potential client is less interested in the scope of work, the deadlines, or the contract, but offers to pay in full and immediately (like my scammer). No legitimate client is that eager to pay up-front. If it sounds too good to be true, it is likely a scam.
  • Never accept a check that exceeds the amount you asked for. Send it back immediately - and do not deposit it.
  • Use electronic online payment services that don’t expose your bank account or bank name, like PayPal or Zelle to receive your fee (most banks offer that service).
  • Even after receiving personal checks from legitimate clients, wait at least two weeks until the check is cleared by your bank (or get the cash) before you start working or continuing your work.

What to do after you’ve been conned.

  • Alert your bank! Banks are usually required to reimburse their customers for forged checks. That depends, however, on the circumstances of your case and your state’s laws. Your bank might want to investigate further.
  • Alert other freelancers who are on your contact list. They could become potential targets if your e-mail account was hacked.
  • Alert the organization/platform that the scammer mentioned he/she found your profile on.
  • Expose the scammer on your social media feeds if you feel safe (!) and comfortable doing so.
  • Last but not least, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and/or the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center.

All these steps can reduce the risk of falling victim to a con artist.

Most importantly, trust your gut. One red flag is enough to ditch any prospective client, let alone a scammer. Aim for potential clients and leads to come from referrals or past clients - and only engage with them after you do the vetting to see if the client is a good fit, on your own terms.

If you find yourself researching and pondering a potential client for too long, if you feel stressed over how to respond to a client, or are put off by the tone of an e-mail exchange, it’s time to walk away. If your potential client asks for too much personal information early-on - before a contract is even signed - it’s time to walk away. A real client will respect your privacy; a scammer will continue to probe.

Your time is worth money. Your work is worth money. Your sanity is worth money. Walk away if anyone attempts to waste any of it.

[Related: The Art of Saying "No"]

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Tekla Szymanski founded Content + Design LLC as a one-stop shop for content strategy, web development, and site care for content-driven nonprofit and personal websites that have a mission to share or a story to tell and need a flexible design that adapts to their unique content needs.


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