School nearly duped by fake check scheme

February 11, 2010 7:51:30 PM PST
7 On Your Side has been investigating how Western Union and Moneygram are unwittingly helping scammers take your money. Now we take a look at another case that could have cost some kids their school.

Con artists like to cast their nets wide looking for victims. But now officials say there is a new vulnerable target ? non-profit organizations and charities that need money coming in, not going out, to scammers.

Grade schools do not come much smaller or leaner than Bayside Christian School in Hayward. There are only 33 students and the principal is also a teacher. Eight grades share two classrooms, a tiny building, and one playground. Money is always tight there, so principal Deborah Joplin was thrilled when a letter arrived out of the blue.

"It was actually pretty exciting when I received it because it's a check for $25,000 made out to our school," Joplin said.

The letter said a company in Canada wanted to donate money to the school -- Bayside should deposit the check for $25,000, the school could keep $10,000 and wire the remaining $15,000 to another charity, the Salvation Army.

"There's lots of things our school needs that we could get with $10,000," Joplin said. "It could mean new desks, it could mean new computers, it could mean new playground equipment. We could actually have done a pretty good job of repairing our roof."

It sure was tempting, but also suspicious. The letter said to wire $15,000 to Salvation Army commissioner William Francis in Canada. Joplin wondered why the company would not send the money itself. So she checked online. Turns out William Francis really is the Salvation Army commissioner in Canada.

"The name checked out and the website checked out and it actually kind of looked legitimate," Joplin said.

Still, she had doubts. So she gave the letter to her school board president who did not like what he saw. He turned it over to the U.S. postal inspectors. Good thing he did.

"There's all kinds of variations on the fake check scam, and this is just another variation on it," postal inspector Jeff Fitch said.

The realistic looking check is actually a fake. The school would receive nothing. So if Bayside had wired that money, it would have been sending $15,000 of the school's own money directly to the scammers.

Fitch says charities are a ripe target for these scams because they get checks in the mail all the time. Scammers are exploiting that.

"The charities are organizations that receive money so these guys are thinking, another untapped resource," Fitch said.

7 On Your Side contacted the Salvation Army in Canada. Francis was pretty upset scammers used his good name to try to steal money from a little school 3,000 miles away. Thankfully it did not work.

Joplin says a $15,000 loss would not only have hurt the kids, it might have closed the school.

"It's a serious thing to take that kind of money from a small school like ours," she said. "It costs the kids their education. If we can't pay our bills then the school gets shut down. That would be 35 kids who are not going to go to school here next year."

There are many variations on this type of con, so it is good to be aware of how they might try to scam you. Check the links below for more information.

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