Con artists are targetting freelancers with fake check scams, using the names of legitimate companies to fool victims. Mystery shoppers, online sellers, and people who sign up for Carvertise and Wrapify — which pay drivers to wrap their cars with advertising — are particularly at risk.

But almost every worker in the freelance economy needs to understand how to spot and sidestep this scam. Although fake check cons have nabbed victims for years, they’re getting more sophisticated and prevalent. Indeed, the Better Business Bureau says fake checks are now an “epidemic,” with billions of dollars worth of fake checks sent to tens of thousands of potential victims each year. Some of the bogus checks are of such high quality that it can take a bank weeks to discover they’re fabricated.

Victims lose thousands of dollars with this con. And recoveries are rare.

Devastating cost

Consider SideHusl reader Sandra Stewart. Stewart was recently scammed out of $4,400. The con artist, purporting to be an agent with Wrapify, convinced her to deposit their check and then return the bulk of it, in the form of money orders, to the crook. Naturally, as soon as she sent on the funds, the “advertising opportunity” evaporated, as did the crook.

Wrapify did not respond to her entreaties nor to emailed questions from SideHusl.

However, in October of last year, Wrapify published a warning on its Facebook page: “Please be aware that Wrapify does not pay drivers via check and we do not solicit via mail. There are letters being sent out with Wrapify letterhead including fake checks to help pay for the installation appointment. These are NEVER from us!”

SideHusl reader Matthew Hardy was also approached by con artists purporting to represent Wrapify. But, he wisely called the company to verify the $2,490.00 check. 

“They…told me that the check had been cashed in March 2019 and the amount was only 300.00,” he wrote. “So you know the rest of the story.”

How it works

The car wrap con typically starts with one of two pitches. In one, the victim receives a large check and is told to deposit it, and return all but $500 of the proceeds via money order to the sender. In the other, the victim is told to deposit the bogus check and then write their own check to the “technician” who is supposedly going to wrap their car with advertising.

In both cases, by the time the consumer finds out that the check is bogus, the crooks — including the “technician”/accomplice –are long gone.  And so is the money that you paid via check or money order to the criminals.

When this con is directed at mystery shoppers, they’re typically told that they’re getting excess money so they can mystery shop gift card sellers and/or Western Union. 

When it comes to online sellers, con artists act rabid to buy whatever item the victim has for sale. But the crook maintains that he or she needs to send a third-party check for more than the amount of the purchase. Why? Because they’re out of town; someone near you owes them money; they haven’t yet established a checking account in your area. The excuses are legion. 

Unfortunately, if you buy in, you lose three times — you lose the item you had for sale, the money you refunded and, of course, the payment from the bogus check. And given that victims are often asked to “refund” thousands of dollars, many say the con has also triggered bank overdraft charges.

Why it works

Victims think they are not at risk as long as they wait for the bank to release deposited funds. They inaccurately believe that this is when the check has “cleared” and is deemed legitimate. This stems from a widespread misunderstanding of banking law.

In reality, U.S. banks are required to give customers access to deposited funds within one to two days. However, that doesn’t mean that a check has actually cleared. It can take weeks to clear a check on a foreign bank — or to discover a good forgery. Whenever that happens, even if it’s months later, the bank has the right to debit your account for the full amount of the fake check.

Why freelancers?

Why are freelancers at greater risk than people who work in traditional jobs? They lack the clear lines of communication enjoyed by employees. If you got a $5,000 check from your employer and were told to cash it and write a personal check to someone else in the office for a portion of the proceeds, you’d walk down the hall and ask your boss what was up.

But it can be tough, if not impossible, for freelancers to reach executives at online platforms like Carvertise, Wrapify, and mystery shopping firms. To be sure, now that this con has become so prevalent, many of these firms have warnings on their websites. The first FAQ on the Carvertise driver website, for instance, warns about this “very common internet scam.”

“Carvertise will never ask for money from our drivers and we will never ask you to write a check to anyone,” the company says.

But neither Carvertise nor Wrapify publishes a phone number for driver queries. A Closer Look, a mystery shopping firm that also publishes a warning about fake check scams, tells its mystery shoppers to contact the company via email.

What about the phone number on the check? Smart scammers change that to a phone number of an accomplice, according to the BBB. On the bright side, not all scammers are that smart. So some consumers, like Hardy, can avoid the scam with a well-placed phone call. But it’s best to verify the company’s office number through other channels, such as a Google search or directory assistance.

Red flags

You can’t reach the company that issued the check? Then protect yourself by heeding the warning signs of a fake check scam. Those are:

  1. The check is for considerably more than you’re owed.
  2. You’re asked to deposit the check and then write a personal check, or buy a money order or gift cards, to send to a third party to “reimburse” the seller for the overpayment.
  3. You are paid in advance for a mystery shop. (Mystery shopping companies never pay in advance. They simply reimburse for a limited amount of expenses.)
  4. There’s a sense of urgency. Whether the crook says the car advetising campaign can’t last — or that you have to do this mystery shop immediately — all con artists push for quick action. In fact, any delay on your part is likely to trigger some sort of threat or intimidation by the con artist. Why? Every day that you delay is another day that the bank has to discover the forgery and alert you to the con.