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MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Buyers and sellers beware: Internet scammers are reaching out to hook more suckers.

Over the last several months, financial institutions serving the military overseas have seen an increase in counterfeit money orders and checks as well as phishing, according to Joseph Roginski, the Japan regional director and Misawa branch manager of USA Federal Credit Union.

“Those are the two big ones we’re fighting right now,” he said.

The counterfeit check scheme — also called the “overpayment scam” — has affected bank customers who sell items at online auction sites, such as eBay, Roginski said.

The buyer sends the person a money order, cashier’s or traveler’s check for more than the sale value under the guise “they don’t know how much the shipping is going to be,” Roginski said. “It’s like they’re doing you some kind of a favor: ‘Just take whatever you need and wire the difference back.’ ”

While it may seem like a friendly gesture — “I trust you, so trust me” — Roginski said, “It’s a scam. But people get burned by that so much.”

Roginski said the Misawa credit union caught eight counterfeit money orders a woman tried to cash in October and November. Two cashier’s checks for $5,000 someone received after selling something on eBay also were bogus, Roginski said. Another credit union banker at a base branch near Tokyo got burned for almost $3,000 after unknowingly cashing three counterfeit money orders for about $900 apiece.

While Community Bank officials at Misawa said they haven’t noticed an increase in fake checks, they are aware of the problem, according to Maj. Michael Vaughn, 35th Comptroller Squadron commander and bank liaison for Community Bank at Misawa Air Base. A good example is a bogus money order for double the amount of an item or service, he said.

“That should set off some warning signs,” he said.

Customers at any bank are responsible for the checks they deposit.

Counterfeit checks can often be spotted by careful examination, Roginski said.

“They don’t have water marks, there’s inconsistencies in routing numbers, the printing is shoddy, there are gaps, the colors are uneven, the paper is chintzy,” he said, describing some examples.

Denominations can be another giveaway. American Express last month put out a notice saying it had seen a significant increase in counterfeit American Express traveler’s and gift checks. The company said checks valued at $500 and $1,000 are red flags, since American Express doesn’t sell gift checks in amounts greater than $100 and traveler’s checks valued at $500 or more is unusual.

Roginski said the best way to prevent getting scammed, if using eBay, is to insist on payment by PayPal, an eBay service that allows any individual or business with an e-mail address to securely send and receive payments online.

Another piece of advice, from the National Consumers League’s Internet Fraud Watch, is: “If a stranger wants to pay you for something, insist on a cashiers check for the exact amount, preferably from a local bank or a bank that has a branch in your area.”

To combat phishing, the practice of stealing personal account information by getting people to log on to decoy Web sites, USA Federal Credit Union has made its customer login process more complex and secure. The new system is also a safeguard against key-logging, a program that tracks and records keystrokes, allowing hackers to capture user IDs, passwords and other important data.

Phishing often starts with an e-mail that appears to be from a legitimate financial institution asking you to go to a Web link and update your online banking information, Roginski said.

“No (legitimate) banking institution will ever send you an e-mail” and ask for this information, he said.

“They’ll contact you by letter or will ask you to call,” he said. “If you get one of these phishing messages, contact the bank and tell them about it.”

Community Bank officials said the bank’s personal account login features aren’t changing but that they continue to use the latest encryption technologies and remain vigilant against phishing and other Internet scams.

“We would never ask you for an account number, Social Security number or PIN,” Vaughn said.

Tips for recognizing, avoiding check scams

¶ There is no legitimate reason for someone who is giving you money to ask you to wire money back. Insist on a cashier’s check from a local bank or a bank that has a branch in your area.

¶ Sometimes fake checks look so real that they can fool even bank tellers. Some are phony cashier’s checks, others look like they’re from legitimate business accounts. The companies whose names appear may be real, but someone has dummied up the checks without their knowledge.

¶ Other times, fake checks look counterfeit: The edges may be uneven, as if cut with scissors or a paper cutter. When they’re held up to the light, there’s no watermark. There may be gaps in the print on the check or uneven ink colors.

¶ Denominations can be a red flag. U.S. Postal Service money orders are printed on crisp, textured paper stock and have a maximum value of $1,000. International postal money orders carry a maximum value of $700. American Express gift checks have a maximum denomination of $100.

¶ Just because you can withdraw the money doesn’t mean the check is good, even if it’s a cashier’s check. It can take weeks for the forgery to be discovered and the check to bounce.

¶ Report fake check scams to the National Fraud Information Center/Internet Fraud Watch, a service of the nonprofit National Consumers League, at www.fraud.org or call (800) 876-7060.

— Jennifer H. Svan

Source: National Consumers League Internet Fraud Watch, USA Federal Credit Union and consumeraffairs.com

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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