In an effort to warn students and local residents about various account-draining scams, U.S. Postal Inspection Service representatives stopped by downtown Santa Barbara last Thursday as part of a national campaign.

The U.S. Postal Service and the USPIS recently began a new program called the Alliance for Consumer Fraud Awareness. The Alliance held a national press conference in Washington, D.C. on October 3 to announce the new program, and is currently making stops at post offices around the country to publicize check fraud.

Check fraud is sweeping the nation, Los Angeles Division Inspector in Charge Bernard Ferguson said in a press release. Through preventative efforts such as the fake check campaign, he said, the postal service can educate and empower the public to protect itself.

In this particular scheme, counterfeit foreign checks may accompany a fake lottery offer or phony business deal. The fraud victim is told to deposit the check and send back an “administrative fee” of several thousand dollars to collect their full winnings or payment. Once the bank detects the fraudulent check in its system, it is often too late, and the victim is liable for the entire sum.

USPIS spokeswoman Renee Focht said the purpose of the event at the Santa Barbara Post Office was to educate consumers about the risk of check fraud. She said USPIS is cracking down on foreign criminals, and that citizens can help with the effort by reporting incidents and attempts.

“In an eight-month period, we intercepted 2.1 billion frauded checks,” Focht said. “That’s the reason for the big educational campaign. We investigate the crimes and try to go after the criminals. We’ve been working with Canadian, U.K. and Nigerian law enforcement to intercept some of the mail before it gets to their country.”

Despite international efforts, Focht said the most effective way to prevent check fraud is to use common sense.

“The bottom line is this,” she said. “There is no reason for someone to send you a check or money order and then tell you to send them money.”

Focht also said check fraud is sometimes coupled with any number of scams currently in practice.

“They’re taking these counterfeit checks and they’re using them in a number of scams,” Focht said. “They tell you to deposit the check and wire them administrative fees. The check scam has permeated all the other scams and is the most prevalent.”

U.S. Postal Inspector Tracy Putnam said he has seen a plethora of unique scams that incorporate check fraud.

“I’ve seen pedigree dog scams,” Putnam said. “There are work-at-home schemes – some even go online to and pose as legitimate businesses. Online dating is another one. They’ll chat you up and then say to send money for a plane ticket.”

Students are particularly susceptible, Putnam said, and are at a higher risk than other consumers for check fraud.

“It’s pretty common,” he said. “A lot of kids are naïve; they don’t know people are trying to take advantage of them. Someone says ‘Hey, want to earn some extra money?’ They post it on bulletin boards. Students don’t understand the effect this will have on their credit history in the long run.”

Putnam said the advent of Internet technology makes such schemes especially viable.

“It’s easier now with the Internet,” he said. “Most suspects are in foreign countries, but you don’t know if they’re down the street or across the world.”