Con Artists Target Craigslist Sellers With Fake Checks

Ploy leaves trail from North Texas to California

All Sharon Heldenbrand wanted to do was sell her dining room chairs because she no longer wanted them, but instead she nearly got wrapped up in a scheme that could have cost her $2,000.

A few weeks ago Heldenbrand put an ad on Craigslist, the free classified website, to sell six French-Provincial dining chairs for $300. It didn’t take long for her to get an email nibble.

The potential buyer, who called herself Emily, wrote, “I would like to purchase this item.”

“For someone not to haggle over them and all of that, that was pretty cool,” Heldenbrand said. “I was pretty pumped.”

But this was no typical transaction.  Emily told Heldenbrand she would buy them, but she couldn’t come to look at them because she was deaf.  Instead, she contacted Heldenbrand only via email and wrote she would send a check via FedEx. She continued that the chairs would be picked up by her movers and “their payment will be included in the check.”

In other words, the check would cover the cost of the chairs and the movers.

“We were supposed to cash the check and go use the cash to buy the MoneyGram and then send to this mover,” said Heldenbrand.

When a check signed by Emily Anderson arrived in the amount of $2,350 it shocked Heldenbrand. 

“I was like, ‘Something is just not right with this situation,’” said Heldenbrand.

So instead of cashing it, she called the NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit – and we started digging.

The FedEx envelope came from Myra Walker, a professor at the University of North Texas.  She confirmed UNT’s FedEx account had been hacked by con artists preying on Craigslist sellers.  Walker said these fraudsters used the university’s FedEx account to send fake checks that appeared to be from the payroll account of Texas’ beloved Blue Bell ice cream in Brenham.

“They were attempting to impersonate us,” confirmed Diana Markwardt, Blue Bell’s vice president of office operations.

Markwardt said the company received 40 calls about the bogus checks, but because of tight security measures with its bank accounts the company lost nothing.

But Heldenbrand’s check didn’t come from Blue Bell.  It supposedly came from a California company called Landmark Escrow.

“We’ve been contacted from random sellers that are posting items up on Craigslist,” confirmed Michael Kendrick, Landmark’s regional manager, who said its checks have, in effect, been copied.

“These are in no way, shape or form anything issued by our company,” he said.

Like Blue Bell, he too said the company lost nothing because of security measures it has in place.

Detective Brian Brennan, with the Euless Police Department, who investigates financial crimes, took a look at the check Heldenbrand received and immediately confirmed it was a fake.

He said it was printed on check stock, which can be bought in an office supply store. 

He said if a consumer cashes a bogus check, days later when the bank discovers it’s a fake, the money comes out of the consumer’s account.

“They won’t reimburse you for it, most of the time,” Brennan said. “And most people, $2,000 out of their account, that would hurt.”

Craigslist did not respond to NBC5’s questions about this case. But on its website, it tells users to deal with folks they can meet in person.  Never wire funds or give out financial information.  It also stated “CRAIGSLIST IS NOT INVOLVED IN ANY TRANSACTION, and does not handle payments, provide escrow, "buyer protection" or "seller certification."”

Brennan said he sees this scheme two to three times a week, but said there are plenty of others out there as well.  He also said it’s often hard to catch these con artists, so consumers have to shop smart.  If it looks too good to be true, they should walk away.

That’s what Heldenbrand did. 

She still has her chairs and her money and said now she’s wary of selling online.

“I think I’m going to use a consignment shop,” she said.

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