TALLAHASSEE - Attorney General Charlie Crist sent out a press release Feb. 16 warning of a new twist to the Nigerian Bank Scam.
According to the release, Crist recently received two Cashiers checks totaling $21,000 in an attempt to draw him into the "latest variation of a familiar scam."
"The audacity of these criminals is breathtaking," Crist said in the release. "It's clear that these scam artists will stop at nothing and spare no one, in their shameless ploy to make a quick buck."
Bob Sparks, director of external affairs at the Attorney General's office, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was investigating the incident. He said it was not known for sure if the checks received by Crist came from Nigeria and that Crist did not attempt to cash the checks.
John Joyce, special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service field office in Tampa, said Crist did the right thing by not trying to cash the checks. He said most of the checks being used in these scams are counterfeit.
"Nobody sends you money for free," Joyce said. "No matter how nice a person you are."
The scam is explained in a public awareness advisory regarding "4-1-9" or "advance fee fraud" schemes, published on the U.S. Secret Service's Web site, www.secretservice.gov/alert419.shtml.
According to the release, 4-1-9 Schemes frequently use the following tactics:
An individual or company receives a letter or fax from an alleged "official" representing a foreign government or agency
An offer is made to transfer millions of dollars in "over invoiced contract" funds into a person's personal bank account
A person is encouraged to travel overseas to complete the transaction
A person is requested to provide blank company letterhead forms, banking account information, telephone and or fax numbers
A person receives numerous documents with official looking stamps, seals and logo testifying to the authenticity of the proposal
Eventually, people are asked to provide up-front or advance fees for various taxes, attorney fees, transaction fees or bribes, Joyce said.
Other forms of 4-1-9 schemes include: cash on delivery of goods or services, real estate ventures, purchases of crude oil at reduced prices, beneficiary of a will, recipient of an award and paper currency conversion.
People who sell merchandise on the Internet are often the target for these scammers.
Joyce said the best way to avoid becoming a victim is to have the mindset of doing a business transaction. He said if a person receives a check for more than the agreed upon price, they should not give change. He said people also should make sure the check clears before shipping the merchandise.
"Most people are generally good," he said. "They want to help someone out."
And that's where people run into trouble.
Joyce said most of the time when a person tries to deposit or cash a counterfeit check the bank can identify it as fake and refuses it. But sometimes, the counterfeit is good enough that the bank accepts it and it may be a week or two before it is discovered that the check is no good.
Despite all the warnings, Joyce said some people still believe that they can get something for nothing. He said people should know that if they spend money from a deposited counterfeit check, it is their responsibility to repay the bank.
"People pull the money out of the bank and spend it on bills," he said. "Then a week goes by, and the check is charged back and they don't have the money to repay. Then they have legal problems. It can turn a life upside down."
He said people who receive a check from someone they don't know should contact the Secret Service before attempting to deposit or cash it. The Secret Service is the only federal agency investigating the Nigerian Bank Scheme, he said.