Column: The 'check' was in the mail

There's a sucker born every minute ... and one to prove it soon after. In my line of work, I hear about a lot of scams. A week rarely goes by that a story can't be found on the wire about another unfortunate victim being scammed out of their life savings. And now with identity theft on the rise, we must remain vigilant at all times.

People have been scamming other people since the beginning of time. Today's scammers are no different than the snake oil salesmen of the Old West, who traveled from town to town pushing some miracle elixir guaranteed to fix anything and everything that ails ya. The modus operandi of today's frauds may not be comparable, but the motive is the same: They want your money, and as much of it as you'll give them.

One scam still making the rounds is for warranty coverage on your vehicle. The letter (or caller) says they will extend your warranty for a fee. They say your warranty is about to expire (how do they know that?) so you should act immediately. You'll figure out you've been scammed the next time you take your car in to get it fixed. I received a call from a reader this week who received one of those letters, and she was concerned that seniors might be taken in. Many are.

These snake oil salesmen of today are as smooth as their predecessors. They make their scam sound plausible, even reasonable. They prey on the weak, the naïve and the stupid people in our society. Once in a while, they get lucky. Their fishing is done with large nets; most see through these scams from the outset, while a few get taken in. A few is all they need.

Seniors are particularly susceptible to these schemes. Some no longer possess the capacity to see through these frauds, and others are lonely and appreciate the attention. Scam artists whose MO is to visit homes and convince owners they need unnecessary repairs thrive on seniors. Many times, they show up after a severe weather occurrence, but often they canvass neighborhoods under the guise that the repairs are not only necessary but will save them a lot of money in the end.

The best way to stop these types of criminals is information, to know the warning signs. The Arizona Attorney General's Office sends out scam alerts several times a year, and local law enforcement contacts media when they begin seeing a trend or when a particular scam targets people in their area. We make it a priority at the Miner to get this information into the paper so people know what to look for.

Many scam artists use the Internet to deceive. Anyone with an e-mail address has seen a letter from some ambassador from some crazy country like Uruguay asking for your help in getting the money he rightfully deserves. He tells of his plight in broken English and guarantees you an ungodly amount of money to lend him a hand. I could wallpaper my bathroom with these letters if I wanted to. I get at least one a week.

Don't ever respond to these, for the same reason you never unsubscribe to an e-mail. They are looking for a live person, and while they will grant your request to quit sending you e-mail on this particular subject, you will soon begin receiving e-mail from every other scam artist or company trying to sell you something. The best way to combat these bulk e-mails is to set up a free e-mail account through Google or Yahoo. Both services do a pretty good job of sending these types of e-mail to a folder that can be deleted quickly and easily.

I was recently targeted by scam artists when I put an ad on the Internet site to sell my vehicle. The morning after I posted the information, I received a text message from a scammer who said he was very interested in buying my car. I thought, "Great, that was fast!" He e-mailed that he had a client that wanted the vehicle, so he would send me a check for the full amount of my asking price plus about $6,000 more. I was told to cash the check and send him the remaining amount so he could arrange to have the vehicle shipped to his client. That was the second warning flag. The first was the e-mail with broken English. Can't these stupid people hire a person with a fluency in our language?

A search on the Internet quickly discovered multiple sites outlining the scam. You see, the check is bogus. It's a cashier's check, so the victim thinks that it must be legit. The scam works because the check looks to be drawn on a large banking institution, like Chase.

The victim cashes the check, which most times will get by banking officers at small branches, sends the money to pay off their loan, then sends the scammer the remaining amount. About a month later, the check will come back as fraudulent. By then, the victim is out at least 6 grand, not to mention the money spent to get their title.

I sent an e-mail to the FBI about the scam. An agent contacted me by phone within an hour, telling me to block the sender and to have no more contact with him whatsoever. I complied, but guess what showed up at my door by UPS the other day? That's right. A $25,000 check. It looks legit, don't you think? If I was devious, I could probably find a sucker to give me $10,000 cash and I would sign the check over to them. Then I would be committing fraud, and authorities would have no problem finding me because my name is on the check! It's fun to look at, though.

Common sense stops most scams. The AG says:

1. Never send money to anyone you don't know personally.

2. Never give out your checking account number or routing number over the phone.

3. Listen to those warning bells going off in your head.

4. Remember that if something sounds unbelievable, it probably is.

5. Do some research before signing anything and especially before handing out any cash.

6. And always talk to someone you trust before agreeing to something that's going to cost you money.

With our economy in the trash bin and gas and food prices rising dramatically, we must all be on the lookout for scammers. They thrive on our fears, using our willingness to save a buck to take some of our bucks for themselves. Don't get taken in.