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No matter what the come-on, the bait in wire transfer scams is the same: You receive one or more checks, typically for less than $5,000 each, with instructions to deposit the money in your account and quickly forward all or part of the amount to another party, usually by wire or personal check. Scammers depend on a quick turnaround to get your money before banks discover their checks are bogus.

By law, money from deposited cashiers checks, US postal money orders and government checks must be made available to bank customers by the next business day. These checks do not actually clear for about ten days. When the bank cashes a check for you, it is actually fronting the money until they actually receive it (in about ten days). If you were to receive a phony check, cash it and send part or all of it back to a scammer, you would have to pay the bank back when the check bounced (after you already sent the money to the scammer). This is how they get your money!

This type of scam commonly comes from phony lotteries, sweepstakes “overpayments” in online auction sales, online deceptions, job fraud and other schemes. You may encounter them on job or dating websites or from a letter or fax. Many of these frauds originate from Africa, East Asia and Eastern Europe.

Don't assume any checks you've deposited are actually in your account until the bank tells you that "funds have been collected". Being told "funds are available" or the check has "cleared" is not good enough.

Trash any check claiming to be winnings from a lottery or sweep- stakes in which you're asked to pay "processing" or "handling" fees.

Don't deposit a check that exceeds the price of an item you sell online. If, say, you receive a $3,000 check for a $500 item and are asked to wire back the difference, assume the $3,000 check is bogus.

Don't respond to phone numbers listed in a letter explaining the reason for an unsolicited check. Scammers often avoid capture by using cell phones or toll-free numbers for only 30 days and then discarding them.

Don't trust purported cashier's or government checks. Because they require the shortest "hold" time, their forgeries are especially common. These people can make authentic looking checks or money orders which can fool most bank tellers.

The best way to protect yourself is never to respond to phone calls, letters, e-mails or Internet offerings for work-at-home opportunities, sweepstakes or other offers involving check and wire transfers.

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