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Fake cashier's checks flood Armstrong County

| Thursday, May 4, 2006

The check is in the mail and it may be coming to you. The problem is it's fake and you'll be the one paying if you cash it.

Residents in Armstrong County have been receiving fake cashier's checks which are part of a scam designed to get the victim to send $3,900 via Moneygram or Western Union to claim their full $250,000 prize.

To cover the expenses of receiving the prize, the victim is asked to cash a very real-looking cashier's check, then contact an agent in Canada for instructions on where to send the money.

The checks are not legitimate, according to Denise Jackson, branch manager at the Harris Bank location listed on the checks. Harris Bank is based in the Chicago, Ill., area and is listed as the bank the check is being drawn against.

She said the checks are made to look real, but have a few telltale things on them to let anyone know they're not real. She said similar reports of such forgeries have come from Mississippi.

The cashier's checks issued by Harris Bank do not include a bank address, only the name of the financial institution, Jackson said.

Fine print on the bogus check directs inquiries about the check to a company in Massachusetts, but the phone number listed to call is actually a cell phone in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

There was no answer at the listed number when called yesterday, and no message could be left.

Andrew Richards, head of postal fraud investigations for the U.S. Postal Service in Pittsburgh, said these types of fake checks are becoming more sophisticated, lending to the idea that they may be legitimate. Criminals have begun using real routing numbers, making the checks seem real even to banks. It can take a bank up to three weeks to determine a check is forged, which is plenty of time for a person to be victimized, he said.

"It's an important strategic issue about the routing number at the bottom of the forged document," Richards said. "Because of this added period of time (verifying routing numbers), a lot of people are getting sucked in on it."

But there are other signs the checks aren't legitimate. Phone numbers listed for the company handling the winner verification on the accompanying letter are cell phone numbers from Winnipeg, Manitoba, while the company's address listed in the letterhead is in Ontario, just north of Toronto.

A recording of a female voice answers calls to the company, instructing the caller that "all agents are busy" and requests personal information be left in a message.

The letter gives a name of a claim agent, Moses Lawson, to call for instructions on where to send the money. A man answering the phone at the listed number said his name was "Mr. Lawrence" and referred the call to another number, and said to ask for "Mrs. Baster."

A woman who would not identify herself answered that number, and said "If we sent you a check, sir, it is legitimate," but could not provide information to verify the check's legitimacy.

Richards said anyone with questions about similar items mailed to them should contact the postal inspector's office in Pittsburgh at 412-359-7900.

"These documents can look quite real, but if you put that document in your bank, you are liable for it."

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