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They’re Scamming Writers With Certified Checks

writing scamsA couple of weeks ago I answered an ad for a freelanced writer, probably on Craigslist, but I’m not sure and now wish I were. As I recall they wanted a writer and were willing to pay $2 a word.

That rate is high for a writing job, particularly online, but not impossible.

A day or two later I got an email describing a 20,000 word project and asking for a more specific quote. The email had a business address and phone number in Canada and seemed fine. (I’ve done business with Canadians before successfully.) I offered to do the work for a total of $10,000, with a third up front, a third in the middle and the balance at the end, with two revisions per chapter. My bid was maybe a bit low, but the writing work they wanted was easy and was feeling a bit hungry.

The next email, which said they wanted to pay in quarters rather than thirds, also seemed fine.

Then it began to fall apart. I suggested they pay by PayPal and they responded they couldn’t use that service but would be happy to send a cashier’s check. I was told to expct a phone call to confirm my mailing address. But the English seemed off this time.

The phone call came and seemed to be just a confirmation of my address along with the statement that a cashier’s check would shortly be in the mail.

By this time I was pretty sure I was involved in some sort of scam. Since my address is public I didn’t figured I wasn’t hurting myself by confirming it. I decided to just wait and see what happened.

Sure enough in a few days a cashier’s check arrived, but instead of being for a quarter or even a third, it was for more two-thirds of our agreed amount. Now I was sure someone was being scammed.

I called my the credit union where I do business (California Coast Federal Credit Union if you’re in the San Diego area) and asked what I should do. They suggested I call the issuing bank, or in this case,  credit union (Michigan State University Federal Credit Union if you’re there – nice folks). The logo on the check and the logo on the credit union’s site were identical. I couldn’t get through on the phone, but they had a chat function and shortly I was chatting with someone helpful. Sure enough, the account existed, but was empty and according to the fellow I was chatting with it was the second or third time that day they’d gotten a call about that account!

The credit union didn’t seem to know where I could report it, but I found the Internet Crime Complaint Center and filed a report there. Since the check was mailed, although from Canada, I’m taking it and the envelope to the post office today, along with copies of the emails.

I am grateful that Craigslist posts warning like:


over and over again. That probably planted a needed doubt in my brain.

It’s no longer enough to be wary of cashier’s checks from foreign countries, nor is it enough to simply check to see if the issuing bank exists. Nor is it enough to say if it’s too good to be true… in this case, none of those applied. The amount offered for my writing skill was reasonable. While Canada is a foreign country it isn’t Nigeria. The phone call I received was from a number that at least appeared to be inside the US and, as you know, it’s impossible to tell where emails come from.

The truth is, a call to the issuing bank is the only way to check out if the money you’re being sent exists.

I’m not clear on how the scammers expected to benefit. I can’t imagine they wanted the writing for free – the writing gig was just an excuse for the transaction. The usual pattern would be for them to ask for a portion of the money back – that hasn’t happened. In fact I haven’t heard from them at all, leading me to believe they are at least temporarily out of business. But maybe they would have asked me to refund the “extra” third. If I had they would have gained and I would have lost.

If I had deposited the check, my bank is required to honor it until they find out it’s bogus, at which point I become responsible for what I’ve spent, not either bank. In other words, I would have been on the hook.

I certainly could have stopped this by not responding at any point, or probably by trying the phone number. I don’t know why I didn’t – I don’t expect to be scammed and this is the first time it’s happened.

My decision to keep going and see what happened was both curiosity and a desire to stop scammers. But I will admit that while the fellow at the credit union was checking the account number I was considering how I might use the money!

By the way, as most of you know, I do a lot of business over the internet and will continue to. It’s probably no more risky than many streets. Just be careful.

Have you ever been scammed?


Image from http://www.sxc.hu


{ 35 comments… add one }
  • Not-so-savvy, honest, average people would probably contact them saying they’d sent too much kicking off the scam.

    I’ve never been scammed freelancing, but I’m still waiting for my part of the inheritance of the riches of an ancestor who died leaving millions of dollars for me in a Nigerian bank account…

  • That was very perceptive, Anne. With the largest romance publisher located in Canada, Harlequin, it might be easy to be lulled. They used to pay by cheque but I think they do bank transfers now.

    I sell to a publisher in Alberta that pays with MoneyGrams, which I cash at my local WalMart. It’s sort of like being paid to shop.

    • I’ve used Western Union here in the US the same way… cash at the grocery store.

  • Lol, I live here in Lansing, MI, where we have MSU and four or five MSUFCU branches. They are a staple here.

    My bank only gives me a couple hundred out of large checks, and doesn’t “release” the full amount until they get it from the other bank. Does everyone else’s do that? I assume that would nip the scam in the bud on YOUR end at least- you’re not on the hook cause you didn’t spend any of it… well, maybe the couple hundred….. But at least not 10K!!

    • Hey, if I were in Lansing I’d probably use MSUFCU as my credit union – they were great. No, not every bank or CU clears only a portion of a check… depends on the nature of the account. My goal, of course, was not to deposit at all if it was phony. And since it was, to advise readers here to be on the look out.

  • Anne,

    The only thing I can figure is that they planned to ask you for the difference (hence changing the one-third payments to one-quarter payments, which would have given them an even larger “refund”) but then they thought better of it once they’d had time to ponder your obvious business savvy (which you demonstrated by asking for money up front, in the middle, and at the end of the project). They probably decided that you would be trouble — and possibly get them into trouble — and so decided to abandon the scam.

    • I think you’re right and based on my conversation with MSUFCU someone else had already busted them.

  • Great post! I had an similarly interesting experience with a response to a mystery shopper ad. Like you, I thought things initially looked fine… then it became what cops call “JDLR”–“just doesn’t look right.” I didn’t have any luck reporting it to the IC3 site, but did with the Postal Inspector. It was a learning experience, that’s for sure!
    Terrisa recently posted..Picture Prompts – A Policewoman &amp MoreMy Profile

    • the JDLR factor is a great way to put it. I might make it JDFR – just doesn’t feel right, but either way works.

  • To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Good God, why must they mock poor writers thus? We are but writers for the working day. our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched by our chronically impoverished state.”

    The old rule still applies, I’m afraid: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is…
    Greg Gross recently posted..TEXAS- I’ve been railroadedMy Profile

    • Love the paraphrase Greg – and in my own defense it didn’t seem to be too good etc. when the thing started.

  • Debbie

    Didn’t get a fake check…just didn’t get paid at all!

    Did an article in responds to a Craiglist ad. Made contact and had a couple follow-up replies for more info. all seemed on the up & up. Payment to be made 48 hours after article accepted and aproved ….

    When no payment appeared sent a new email that bounced back …and I had no way of contacting anyone….chalked it up to ‘live & learn’.

    • Yeah, that’s why I insist on something up front… did an article for $75, got $25 upfront and the balance was paid promptly.

    • Debbie,

      Why not try setting up a Google Alert using a unique phrase from your article? Once Google sends you the link to the website that has posted your article (provided it’s been published online), you’ll then be able to contact the website owner to demand that it be taken down.

      Be aware, though, that the website owner won’t necessarily be the party responsible, since the person who commissioned your article may have sold it to the site’s owner. I once had an article copied from a website and sold on eLance as another “writer’s” work. When I contacted the website owner, he apologized, explained what had happened, and immediately took it down. Of course, I have only his word that that is in fact what happened. However, I did accomplish at least part of my objective: getting him to take my article down. When I asked for more info about the “writer” who had sold him my work, he never responded (which was a bit suspicious in itself).

      If your article has been posted to a blog or other website where you can leave comments, you can begin leaving comments about the violation of your copyright or the outright stealing of your work — if, after you’ve waited a reasonable amount of time, the website owner hasn’t complied with your demand to take down your article. If that doesn’t work, you can try contacting the site’s web host and lodging a complaint against the site. You can also do a “Who Is” search at http://whois.domaintools.com/ to see who the owner of the domain is, which might help you in seeking a remedy for the problem.

      If you can prevent the people who stole your work from being able to post it on the Internet, you have won in at least one sense. It won’t get you the money you deserve for all your hard work and creativity, but hopefully it will prevent the thief from deriving any further benefit from your work.

      There are some great tools available to us online that we can use to protect our interests. These can empower us and help us not to be forced to accept the role of victim.

      Hope you’re able to get to the bottom of it!

      Good luck!

  • I had something similar happen almost two years ago. I had responded to an ad, and I got a response. I thought it was kind of strange that the company was asking me again for my contact information because I’d sent a resume with all that info on it. So, the “something’s not quite right here” flag was already raised in my mind. But, like you, I responded. They were going to send me a check and a package that I was supposed to edit. I received the check – but it was for more than twice the quoted amount. I emailed them saying “Um, I think you made a mistake.” They then told me that I was to deposit the check and then send the remaining amount to a post office box. Well, I didn’t hesitate to call them on it. I told them that I couldn’t accept the check, and they needed to send me a check for the proper amount (needless to say the package never came). They, naturally didn’t respond, and I reported the fraud to my local police department, state general attorney, and the internet crime site.

    It’s interesting that yours was from MSUFCU – I used to bank there. They are a very nice group of people!

    • MSUFCU was super nice… I’d bank there if I were nearby… wasn’t their fault that someone can print checks like theirs – and yeah, I sort of expected to be asked to pay them back the difference… they didn’t get around to it I guess… had no intention of doing it of course, was going to take your tack.

  • Fortunately, I have not been scammed-although before freelancing I have been a victim of identity theft-3 times!

    I don’t get how they would benefit from the scam, but then I am happy to report that I am not wired to think like a scammer. Laura’s probably right that somewhere along the way they figured they’d get access to your account.

    Thanks for sharing, Anne, and I’m glad this story had a happy ending (even if you din’t get a legit gig out of it). 🙂
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Simply Stated Posts in Friday Lite ReviewMy Profile

  • Anne,
    Thanks so much for sharing about this scam. It is good you followed through with your gut instincts to check this out. That was very smart thinking.

    I appreciate the warning.

    Best wishes to you,
    Debbie Dunn

    • I’ve learned to always trust my intuition… well, almost always.

  • Amazing. Good for you for doubting it.

    I’ve been scammed once on a pro bono job. Didn’t lose money, but the guy had set up a phony foundation and inadvertently, I’d helped promote the scam by writing a press release. Luckily, a detective in the guy’s area alerted me before any more damage was done.
    Lori recently posted..Worthy Tip- This Job- Not That JobMy Profile

    • Geeze, I could fall into that trap… maybe I have and didn’t know it.

  • I had an experience that wasn’t a scam per se but was really questionable. I was hired to do some academic writing for a company. The information that they sent me looked like it was writing term papers for college students. When I tried to get more information about who would be using the material that I wrote, they were really vague. So, I tactfully said I wouldn’t be able to write for them.

    • Yes, Nina, I won’t write academic papers… did it once for an individual… I really didn’t ‘get’ what she was doing – hiring me to write a paper on something I’ve forgotten now.

  • Laura Davis

    My guess is that it was a phishing scam of some kind to collect your bank information.

  • Wow! Amazing story! Thanks!
    helen recently posted..May 5- Sarah Palin Book- Behind the VoiceMy Profile

    • You’re welcome Helen. Interesting article on ghostwriting.

  • Thanks for the warning. So sad that we can’t trust when we are trying to make a living doing what we love in an honest and considerate way.
    Terri Forehand recently posted..Book Review- Milo Finds His Best FriendMy Profile

    • Terri, I doubt if writers are scammed as much as the elderly or other folks… at least not more.

  • And if nothing else, it gave you fodder for an excellent post … along with the warning to others. Amazing what people will do for a buck (although this buck makes no sense to me!). Glad you followed it through and things worked out well!
    Lisa @ Grandma’s Briefs recently posted..Seagulls and cerealMy Profile

    • Yes, Lesa, we writers are awful 😉 everything’s fodder.

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