Bamboozled March 17, 2016: ‘This was a classic scam. Everyone knew that.’ So why are we still falling for it?

We’ve heard variations on the scam time and time again.

A scammer sends a consumer a check. The consumer deposits the check and sends money back to the scammer. The check bounces. The consumer is held responsible by the bank to return the funds.

The question: Why is the bank making funds available if the bank hasn’t first made sure the check would clear?

It’s a great question, and it came to us from a reader we’ll call John.

John’s daughter put an ad on Craigslist to sell an item. She received interest from someone who said they were from another state, and the buyer said he would send a check for the item’s price plus delivery fees.

The buyer then gave her instructions to send the delivery fee via MoneyGram to the delivery company.

“Sure, this was a classic scam,” John said. “Everyone knew that.”

So John decided to do some research for his daughter.

When the check arrived, he took it to a branch of the bank on which the check was drawn. He asked the clerk to verify if the check was legit and if there were enough funds in the account to cover the check.

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The clerk typed in the account number, John said, and verified there were more than enough funds in the account to cover the check.

John told his daughter the check was good.

She made the deposit, and the money was available in her account the next day. She made a withdrawal for the delivery company and sent the MoneyGram.

The next day, the check bounced, and John’s daughter was on the hook for the funds.

“I should have listened to my instincts and had my daughter rip up the check, but why did the bank clear the funds?” John asked. “She did not withdraw the funds until the bank said the funds were available.”

“I couldn’t feel more Bamboozled if I tried,” he said.

HOW CHECKS ARE “CLEARED”

What happened to John’s daughter is all too common.

There are a variety of so-called “advance check scams,” in which a phony check is given to a victim. The victim deposits the check and sends some of the money back to the scammer.

We’ve seen it happen with a reverse version of the eBay car scam, in which a scammer says he will purchase a car and sends money for shipping, only to have the check bounce after the victim pays the shipping company. That’s similar to what happened with John’s daughter.

We’ve seen it with would-be house-sitters and dog walkers who are sent fake checks from phony employers. The worker is told the check is an advance on their pay, but then the scammer comes up with a reason for the worker to send some of the funds back to the scammer. And then the check bounces.

And with a version of the sweepstakes scam, in which the contest tells you it’s sending you an advance on your winnings to use to pay the taxes on your newfound money.

It’s also the nature of the car wrap scam,  the mystery shopper scam and the re-shipping scam.

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With check scams being so prevalent, John’s question about a bank’s responsibility is an important one.

As we all know, funds can be made available even before the check officially clears. But the true meaning of “cleared” isn’t what most of us believe it to be.

Here’s how it works.

Under current regulations, if a person deposits a $1,000 check on Monday, the bank is required to make $200 available the next day, $400 available on the second day and the total value on the third day, said Steve Kenneally, vice president of payments and cybersecurity policy at the American Bankers Association.

“Some banks, as a service, may make the funds available faster and that a benefit to the customer, but the customer has to understand the check has not cleared,” Kenneally said. “Cleared means when the bank that the check was drawn on actually moves the money to the bank of first deposit.”

Many of us use the term “cleared” wrongly, thinking it describes when money is available in an account. The money isn’t actually “cleared” until the transaction is settled between the banks.

Kenneally said all of this would be outlined in the customer agreement.

So how much time does a bank have to determine that a check is a fake or there are insufficient funds to cover a check?

Kenneally said the regulations require that the paying bank, if they are returning a check for insufficient funds or because it’s a fake, have to return it by 4 p.m. on the second business day.

But if your bank makes the money available sooner and you withdraw the funds, you’re responsible.

Cashier’s checks are covered by a different regulation, and for those, the full amount of the check must be made available immediately to the customer.

“The problem is if someone deposits $1,000 and immediately withdraws the $1,000, and the bank doesn’t know it bounces for two days or that it’s a forgery or counterfeit,” Kenneally said.

Still, the customer who took out the $1,000 is responsible.

So what protection does that give the consumer?

Not much.

Kenneally said the prudent thing to do is to wait and to check with the bank. Your teller should be able to tell you when the transaction to have officially “settled.”

So you need to be cautious.

Like it or not, you are held responsible for checks deposited to your account. Don’t take out the money from any questionable checks until you know the transaction has settled.

“If you’re ever selling anything on eBay or Craigslist and someone sends a cashier’s check, especially if it’s for more than you asked for, this is a scam,” Kenneally said. “It isn’t a mistake. They’re doing it to rip you off.”

Good advice.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.