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Fraud Alert: Fake Checks Used for a Variety of Costly Scams

Despite what you might think, it isn’t easy to spot a counterfeit check. Fraudsters know how to make a fake check look completely legitimate — so good that even a bank teller can’t spot it.

That’s why fraudsters are using fake checks to commit all sorts of scams, including security deposits, phony prize awards, fake job offers, mystery shopper scams, and bogus online classified ad sales.

“This scam comes in many different variations” said John Breyault, who runs the National Consumers League’s Fraud.org website. “But the key thing that binds them all together is the use of a fake check. The consumer is instructed to deposit that check into their personal account and then send a portion of the proceeds to someone right away.”

Most victims are instructed to send the money via a wire transfer service, such as Western Union or MoneyGram. But some are told to buy prepaid debit cards or iTunes gift cards that they can use to buy things.

When the bank discovers the check is counterfeit — which could be days or weeks later — that deposit is removed from the victim’s checking account. The crooks already have their money and the poor consumer is left holding the bag.

Earlier this year, the Better Business Bureau released a list of the Top 10 Most Risky Scams based on an analysis of complaints collected through its online Scam Tracker. Fake check scams came in at number two, just behind home improvement scams. That ranking is based on how many people are targeted by the scam, how likely they are to fall for it and how much money the average victim loses.

“This is definitely a very, very serious concern right now,” said Emma Fletcher, director of scam and fraud initiatives at the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust. “The typical loss to a scam that’s reported to us is about $275, but with fake check scams the median loss is almost $1,500. That’s a lot of money.”

While anyone can fall for a fake check scam, the BBB’s analysis shows that men between the ages of 18 and 24 are the most susceptible. This is also the top scam for students, and military families and veterans.

These Crooks Are Clever
Fake checks are commonly used to steal money from people who want to become mystery shoppers. Kathy, who lives in Dallas, Texas, got taken for $2,650 this way. She asked that we not use her last name.

“What these crooks are doing is disgusting, absolutely disgusting,” Kathy told NBC News. “They’re really clever and they need to be brought to justice.”

Kathy had done mystery shopping before, so she wasn’t surprised to get an email from a mystery shopping company asking her to do some work for them.

“The email seemed totally legit and everything on the website seemed on the up and up, so I didn’t question it. There were no warning signs,” she said.

Kathy’s first assignment as a “survey agent” was to rate money transfer companies. The mystery shopper scammers sent her a check for $2,850 and emailed her a list of questions to fill out about her experiences.

“It was a cashier’s check and it looked totally legit,” she said.

Kathy was told to deposit the check, take the cash and go to three different money transfer services and wire $900 from each. That left her with $100 for doing the job. She did as instructed.

About a week later, Kathy got a letter from her bank. It said the $2,850 check was counterfeit and couldn’t be cashed, so the money she had withdrawn would be debited from her checking account.

“The bank should have been able to determine immediately whether the check was legit or not and they didn’t. And that really disturbed me,” she said.

Kathy realizes she’ll never get that money back, but she hopes that by sharing her experience she can prevent others from becoming victims.

Why Fake Check Scams Work So Well
Few of us understand how the banking system works and the scammers use that confusion to trick us.

When we deposit a check, the financial institution is required by federal law to make the money available to us long before it can be certain the check is legitimate. We see the money show up in our account and assume the check is good and has cleared.

Fake check scam victims frequently report that their financial institutions decline to help them.
But that’s not what really happens. It may take a couple of days or a week or more for the check to work its way through the banking system and actually clear. During that time period, the bank gives us a short-term, no-interest loan using that check as collateral. If the check bounces, we have to pay back that loan in full.

“Unfortunately, you don’t realize you’ve been defrauded until you find that your bank account has a big negative balance,” said Fraud.org’s John Breyault. “And because of how our banking laws are written, it’s the consumer who’s on the hook for that — not the scammer and not the bank. It’s not like a fraudulent transaction on a credit card that you can dispute. It doesn’t work that way with personal checks.”

Victims Say the Bank Wouldn’t Help Them
People who’ve lost money to fake check fraudsters frequently complain that their bank teller did not warn them about the scam and their financial institution would not help them when the check turned out to be bogus.

Erika, a single mom in Oklahoma City who preferred not to be identified by her last name, was excited to be offered a work-at-home job this past spring. Her new employer sent her a check for $1,000 to buy office supplies and cover her first paycheck.

Erika was told to cash the check at her bank, take $979 to another bank in town and deposit it into the account of a corporate vendor who would ship the supplies she needed to get started.

A few days after she did that, Erika got a call from her bank. The check was a fake and there would be a $979 debit to her account. Not only that, but the debit caused her account to be overdrawn, which meant in addition to the $979 stolen by the scammers, she now owed the bank overdraft fees.

“I’m looking for a job, so I can provide for my three year old son, and instead I get fleeced,” she said.

Erika told NBC News she asked the bank if they could help her with this, but she was told there was nothing they could do. That’s not uncommon. Fake check scam victims frequently report that their financial institutions decline to help them.

The nation’s bankers insist they take fake check fraud very seriously and are doing a better job of spotting it and stopping it. For example, the American Bankers Association said tellers are trained to say something and ask questions when they see a transaction that appears to be suspicious.

“These losses are not something that bankers ever want to see,” said Doug Johnson, ABA’s senior vice president of payments and cyber security. “We continually educate our customers about the frauds being perpetrated against them, but we can’t stop every crime.”

That’s why it’s up to you to protect yourself and understand how scammers use fake checks to steal your money.

The BBB’s Emma Fletcher told NBC News she cannot think of any legitimate business transaction where someone would send you a check, ask you to deposit it and wire back the money.

“Any time you’re asked to do something like that, an alarm should go off that this is a scam,” she said.

The Federal Trade Commission has information on Fake Check Scams and the Better Business Bureau provides 10 Steps to Avoid Scams.

5 Tenant Red Flags Landlords Should Look Out For

Landlords can sometimes get a bad rap for being ruthless, money-driven tyrants. The truth is, many landlords do a great job at keeping their tenants happy and, in return, reap the benefits of these people being taken care of. There is a downside for you as a landlord, though, and that occurs when you have not screened your tenants as well as you should have. Even with a proper screening, bad apples can occasionally sneak through, and that’s why it’s important to know the signs of a bad tenant. Read on for five red flags you need to look out for as a landlord.

1. Bad Landlord References
One of the most important things you can do is to call past landlords, as you want to know their history of payments, how they treated the rental property, etc. If the past landlord tells you there was an extensive history of late payments, damage done to the property, or, far worse, an eviction, this should be a giant “no” in your book. This is particularly true if these have been recent. If the bad behavior was far in the past and they have since had good reports, this is up to your discretion, but still be wary.

2. Bad Credit And/or a Tax Lien
Good Landlord 101 includes running a credit check, as knowing how (or if!) they pay their bills is key in deciding whether or not to let them live on your rental property. How landlords read credit reports is also crucial, so if you’re new to doing so, get some help from a company like TransUnion and do your research. Bad credit is a huge red flag and could indicate that they will have trouble paying their rent—tenant screening can save a huge headache. Of course, if the IRS can’t get money from them (hence the tax lien), how do you expect you will do the same? You definitely do not want a squatter!

As for the nitty gritty of credit numbers, be wary of anyone with a credit score of less than 620. As this GreenResidential.com article notes, “A low credit score can be indicative of many things: problems with budgeting, holding down a job, or taking on too much debt. Whatever the reasons, avoid these tenants at all costs.”

3. Criminal History
You are well within your rights to run a background check on your potential tenants. If your gut instinct tells you that this is a solid person and his or her credit check and references turn out okay, you might consider ignoring any minor offenses. However, someone with a major criminal history is obviously someone you don’t want living under your roof, especially if you have other renters in the vicinity.

4. Gaps in Employment And/or Low Income
Your application should include a pretty extensive list of their past employers and how much they have made at each job. Long gaps in history could be an indication of flakiness and low income. You also want to be wary if they make very little money at their current jobs, as you have to weigh the rent vs. this amount of money. If it doesn’t seem to add up, it’s a red flag. Of course, you could ask that someone co-sign for them so that you have someone to recoup the money from him if you need to. That’s something that’s left to your discretion and many landlords will go with their intuition on this.

5. Awkward Behavior During the Interview and Negotiation Attempts
Again, we can’t stress enough the importance of gut instinct. If the person seems overly nervous during the interview and can’t hold eye contact, it could be a red flag. What are they hiding? If there are gaps on their application and they can’t answer many questions during the interview, they could be hiding be a giant secret (or secrets!).

Attempts at negotiation of monthly rent and/or deposit amount don’t have to be huge red flags, but they’re not great signs either. If you know your rental property is fairly priced, stick to that number. Negotiation could be a sign that they are not able to pay this amount on a regular basis.

Position Realty
Office: 480-213-5251

The 5 Most Common Reasons Tenants Leave Your Rentals

Why are renters leaving your units? What can you do about it?

Tenants are on the move. What are the most common reasons they may leave your rentals? How can landlords prevent these moves to keep good tenants, maintain consistent cash flow, and maximize cash flow?

The 5 Most Common Reasons Tenants Leave Your Rentals

1. They want to move somewhere cheaper.
Housing costs, especially rents, have been rising for the last five years. Some are just at the point where it makes sense to move somewhere cheaper where renters can get a lot more for their money. It could be that local rents have just gotten too high—or maybe your rents, in particular, are too high.

Market rents change over time. Be sure you stay tuned into local trends, even when you aren’t actively looking for tenants. If neighboring properties are leasing for 30% less than yours, that could become an issue. Price your properties right. Invest in stable and upcoming locations with more room for growth.

2. They’re afraid of changes in the rental situation.
Sometimes tenants leave just because they are afraid. They may be afraid of how much they think you are going to raise the rent when it comes time to renew. They could be afraid you are going to evict them because they’ve fallen a few days behind on rent a couple times. Or it could be that a tough new property manager you’ve brought in is causing panic in the renters.

Set clear expectations. Get feedback from loyal, long-term renters you trust when you bring in new management, connect with them about renewing leases early, and maintain property upkeep to show tenants you’re a caring landlord, not a slumlord.

3. They need more space.
Between a growing number of multigenerational households and Millennials’ growing families, many simply need more space today. A lot of people jumped on the minimalist lifestyle after 2008, but now, years later, they are tired of living so tightly and cramped. In fact, a Realtor.com survey shows that this is driving far more Millennials and Boomers to choose single family homes in the suburbs over homes in dense urban centers or condos.

4. They want to buy a home.
With rents more expensive than mortgage costs in many areas, interest rates low, and credit scores recovering, many are making the leap to buy homes while it is still so attractive. If you can’t stop it, make the best of it. Ensure a good exit service. Return deposits and ask for a review on the spot. Still, if you can, get them to buy their home from you.

5. They don’t like the neighbors.
No one likes scary or abusive neighbors—and they are out there. This is something to keep in mind when searching and screening rental properties. It is also important to keep lines of communication open and to listen to these complaints. If there are problem tenants in your own neighboring units, you probably won’t renew their leases. If they belong to another landlord, you may want to preempt issues by contacting the other landlord.

Summary
There are a number of reasons good tenants can leave, even if they like the units they are in. Smart landlords will get out in front of these issues and find ways to keep those tenants in their property to avoid turnover costs.

Position Realty
Office: 480-213-5251

Nine Sneaky Fees to Watch for When Hiring a Property Manager

To many landlords, property management services are superfluous, cutting their profit margins to a minimum in exchange for basic services. But the reality is that property managers can make your life extraordinarily easier—and most charge a reasonable enough rate that you can draw a monthly profit from your properties (headache-free).

However, when you’re searching for a property manager to handle your landlord responsibilities, it’s important to note that not all fee structures are the same. If you don’t understand how a manager’s fees work, you won’t be able to compare apples to apples, and you might end up shaving your profit more than necessary if you aren’t prepared for those fees when they come up.

9 Fees to Watch For
These are some of the most common “hidden” fees, extra fees, and differences in fee structure to watch for when comparing providers or finalizing a contract:

1. Rent Due and Rent Collected
Many property managers will charge fees as a percentage of rent, but watch how this is worded—there’s a difference between charging as a percentage of rent due and a percentage of rent collected. A percentage of rent due means your company will charge you based on how much money a tenant owes you; a percentage of rent collected means your company will charge you based on how much money a tenant actually pays you—and is generally more favorable. If you’re charged based on rent due, you’ll end up paying for property management even when your property is vacant and you have no money coming in.

2. Early Cancellation
You may also be charged an early cancellation fee should you break the contract with your property manager before the end of its outlined term. For example, if you agree to work with them for a year and you want out after eight months, you might pay an additional few hundred dollars. Be especially wary of this fee with untested property managers.

3. A La Carte Management Fees
“A la carte” management fees refer to a suite of extra fees a property manager may charge you in addition to basic services. Usually, a property manager will either charge a higher price (and no additional fees) or a lower price, with multiple additional fees, somewhat evening out. Accordingly, it pays to know what fees are applicable and what they might run you. The remaining items in this list could all be classified as a la carte management fees.

4. Vacancy
If a company isn’t charging you the full cost of management while your property is vacant, there may still be an additional vacancy fee. Rather than collecting a percentage of rent due, they may collect a smaller amount from you as a kind of retainer.

5. Advertising
When it comes time to seek a new tenant, some property managers may charge you an additional advertising fee. This would cover the cost of creating media (such as taking photos) and placing it on sources like online listings or paper publications.

6. Leasing
A leasing fee may apply when you find a new tenant for your property. This covers the cost of drafting and securing a new lease agreement and is generally low in cost. If the cost here is high, it should raise a red flag, especially if your resulting tenant turnover seems to increase.

7. Lease Renewal
Lease renewal is even simpler than initial leasing, but it may still require a fee. You may need to draw up new paperwork or renegotiate terms with a tenant, and that means your property managers will be doing a bit of extra work. Expect minimal fees here as well.

8. Maintenance
Property management fees should cover basic instances of maintenance and repair, but some companies may charge extra for big jobs, or for an inspection between tenants.

9. Eviction
Eviction can be a messy process, and if you ever need to evict, you’ll be grateful you have a property management service in your corner. Most property managers will handle the eviction completely on your behalf, but some will charge you an extra fee for the extra work involved. Expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars for this process.

Apples to Apples
Different companies might charge money in different ways, but if they’re offering similar services, you’ll likely find the bottom-line price of each to be competitive with one another. The big difference here is how you plan on using your property management company; for example, if you’re looking for long-term arrangements, an early cancellation fee shouldn’t factor much into your decision. Try to consider all these factors and all price points when comparing providers and making your decision.

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