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The Color of Money

In good and in bad times, be alert for scams that could empty your wallet

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / August 6, 2009

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When times get tight and you’re looking for ways to cut costs or raise cash, don’t let your desperation make you easy pickings for con artists. Take heed of several scams the Better Business Bureau says are snaring consumers.

For example, fake check scams typically require the victim to deposit a check into his account and then give or wire money back to the scammers. The BBB says victims of this scam are found primarily in three ways:

■ They answer an e-mail or a letter claiming they have won a lottery or sweepstakes. Victims are sent a fake check, which the con artist claims is part of the winnings. They are told to deposit the check and send back money that allegedly will be used to pay taxes or administrative fees.

■ They think they are being paid to evaluate a store or service as a mystery shopper. The victim is told to deposit a check and use the money for shopping. Often included in the list of stores to evaluate is Western Union or MoneyGram. The scammers instruct their targets to wire money to test the wiring service.

■ They are selling something online. A would-be purchaser sends a check for the item, but it’s made out for more than the price. The seller is told to cash it and wire the difference.

The Consumer Federation of America said at least 1.3 million people have fallen for a check scam, losing on average $3,000 to $4,000.

What’s so dastardly about this scam is the checks look so real. Even bank employees have a hard time telling the difference.

For more about this scam, go to www.fakechecks.org.

Looking to save money by buying a used car? Well, be careful. The BBB and the FBI say “car cloning’’ is on the rise. In this scam, a crook will take the unique manufacturer-installed vehicle identification number from a legally owned or junked vehicle and use it to forge documents for a stolen vehicle of a similar make and model.

The FBI warns that if you buy a stolen vehicle with a fake VIN and its true ownership is discovered, the car can be confiscated. If you’ve borrowed to buy the car, you’ll still be responsible for any outstanding loan.

The BBB and FBI advise used-car buyers to make sure the VIN on the dashboard, the driver’s side door sticker, the car’s frame, and the paperwork (title documents, service records, and so on) all match. If you buy from a private seller, be sure to check the title against the person’s license.

By next year, car cloning may be nearly impossible to pull off, because the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System should be fully operational. This Department of Justice database will eventually be linked to all state motor vehicle departments.

Look, scams pop up in good times and bad. Just stay vigilant, and always check things out.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.