They are calling it the latest twist on the old Nigerian scam letters, where swindlers persuade victims to wire money overseas or to a third party to claim a share of fortunes that never materialize.
It's the counterfeit check ruse and it often involves phony lotteries, bogus work-at-home opportunities and online auction fraud.
According to consumer groups, more than a million Americans have fallen prey to smooth-talking, usually foreign-based crooks who use the Internet, mail and telephone to con people out of their money.
"People are more vulnerable than ever to these schemes because of the tough economic times," said Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America, which launched a national campaign last month to call attention to the problem.
The federation said about 1.3 million Americans have lost an average $3,000-$4,000 each. Such scams topped the list of telemarketing and Internet complaints the National Consumers League received last year.
Law enforcement officials catch few culprits because they typically operate in foreign countries, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities.
How the scams work; what to do
Vicki Rohlman says she still can't believe she was conned out of $48,000 in a fake check scam.
"I really thought I was doing everything right," the 57-year-old retired Lapeer County business teacher, who frequently warned her students not to be taken in by Internet scammers, said last month. "It's horrible. Here I am, a trained person, and I got caught up in this."
Consumer experts are trumpeting cases like Rohlman's to warn the public about the dangers of the many get-rich-quick scams permeating the Internet, mailboxes and phone lines. These schemes can range from phony lotteries and sweepstakes, to rental and classified ad scams, to too-good-to-be-true work-from-home ruses, among others -- all usually pulled off with fake checks.
The National Consumers League said this month that 41% of the complaints it received last year on its fraud hotline and Web site, www.fraud.org, involved fake check scams. The figure was only 6.5% in 2005.
Last month, the Consumer Federation of America said a study it conducted found that 1.3 million Americans have lost an average of $3,000 to $4,000 in fake check scams.
Law enforcement officials concede that they catch few of the crooks because most of them operate from other countries, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. And because of the proliferation of the scam and the relatively small amounts of money usually involved, they don't have the staff to pursue every case.
So, reported incidents are sent to a national data center in Virginia, which analyzes the complaints in the hopes of catching the biggest offenders.
They say consumer awareness is the best way to combat the problem.
Rohlman, a married mother of six who was looking for spare cash, said she responded to an e-mail request in 2004 from a man who said he lived in the Netherlands and needed help buying property in Michigan to build a condominium complex.
She said she questioned the man until she was satisfied that she wasn't being scammed.
Eventually, he sent her a $48,000 check that she deposited in her bank account to buy land near Fenton. Then, the man told Rohlman his situation had changed and asked her to wire him the money.
Rohlman obliged, only to discover two weeks later that the check bounced. The bank sued her to recover the money, Rohlman declared bankruptcy and the bank ate the loss.
"To this day, I don't know how this could have gone wrong," Rohlman lamented.
Counterfeit check schemes come in several varieties, but they invariably involve a stranger who approaches the target, usually on the Internet, and sends an official-looking check with instructions to cash it and wire some of it back to the sender or a third party.
How victims are chosen
Scammers often find their victims through online auctions, classified ads and social networking and job search sites, looking for information to build trust with potential targets.
Char Larson, president of the Clawson Community Credit Union, said she's continually amazed at the number of people who fall for the fake check swindles.
"They get wrapped up in winning money ... they really want to believe it's real," she said. "We see about two to three of these checks every month, many of them lottery checks from Canada."
Tim Burns, spokesman for the Better Business Bureau, said people routinely call the organization in hopes of confirming that the pitches they received are real.
"When we tell them they're being scammed, they frequently argue with us to try to get us to say that it's legitimate," he said.
Bankers say many people are duped because of the quality of the checks, which are produced on high-resolution color printers, and because they bear the names of real companies, banks and routing and account numbers.
They said many people don't realize that federal law requires banks to make cash available to customers within 1-5 days after a check is deposited, even though it may take weeks for the check to clear.
When a counterfeit check bounces, the person who deposited it is responsible for the loss.
"It goes back to what our mothers taught us: 'Don't trust strangers,' " said Margot Mohsberg, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association.
For more information on fake check schemes, visit http://www.fakechecks.org/.