With Streets Paved in Gold

Every summer since I was about 12 years old, I’ve worked in my father’s check cashing store. For those of you who don’t know how check cashing works, it’s basically banking for transient workers. Many times people receive checks, but do not have bank accounts to deposit the checks into. Other times, the banks hold the checks for somewhere between 7-14 days to verify it before dispensing funds, but the worker can’t wait a couple of weeks to get his money. That’s where check cashers come in. The workers bring their checks to the establishment, we verify that the check is legit-a process that some how takes us several minutes, yet takes banks several weeks-and give them the money, minus a small fee. Then, the check casher deposits the check into their own bank account.

I generally work in the verification department. I’ve learned a lot about check fraud from it, too. When the movie Catch Me if You Can came out, I wasn’t so surprised to see what he pulled off, as I had seen or heard about many of those schemes before. One extremely popular form of check fraud is for someone outside of America to send some sort of email explaining how they have unfortunately come into a difficult situation. They own a business in their home country that deals with international clients, and the clients send them checks that can only be deposited in the United States of America. These “business owners” propose that they will send the check to to this contact person, the contact person will cash the check and then wire the money to the business owner in the foreign country, keeping, of course, a small percentage for their troubles. It seems like a win-win situation to the unsuspecting contact person.

The problem is, of course, these checks are complete forgeries. Most check cashers can spot them right away, but apparently, there are still a few that can’t (or don’t). When the check is denied, its up to the one who cashed it to pay back the check, plus a fine, plus serve jail time if the police are called. The one who cashed it, however, doesn’t have the money anymore, as they have already wired it out of the country.

There is an older woman who works in my office, and when discussing this situation, she says, “It’s such a shame that these crooks play to the emotions of caring Americans. All these people want to do is help someone in an unfortunate situation, and they end up getting screwed over.”

For a while, that’s how I thought of the situation as well. That is, until yesterday, when I received such an email. The subject line didn’t read “please help me” or “my friend needs your assistance”. It said “Make $100, just by depositing a check.” For fear of viruses, I didn’t open up the whole email, but my email server shows a preview of the message. It was written in really bright, flashy, colors, with lots of exclamation points, and a decidedly upbeat attitude.

It was then that I realized, these people aren’t playing towards American’s emotions, they’re playing towards American’s greed. They’re not so naïve to think that Americans will really care about some poor suffering businessman in Nigeria, they know that the only thing on the minds of most Americans is how to make an extra buck or two. And by the popularity of their schemes, they seem to be right.

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