By Richard P. Weiss
Retail Associate, Fox Chase Station
Counterfeit postal money orders continue to circulate, perpetuating havoc and hardship on unsuspecting victims. Con artists who, in many cases, reside overseas contact their victims via Internet chat rooms or other online meeting sites. They convince their targets that they have encountered problems cashing postal money orders in their country (Nigeria to a large extent) and need help to cash them. These thieves mail counterfeit money orders to their victims, telling them that they will share some of this money after the victims deposit the orders into their personal bank accounts and then wire most of the money back to the sender. In some cases, the con artists pose as “businesses” offering opportunities for those needing to work from home. Within a week after recipients deposit the money orders, their banks contact them to let them know that the money orders were counterfeit. The banks hold the depositors accountable and withdraw funds from their accounts to cover the amounts of the bogus money orders, sometimes amounting to thousands of dollars. Those who are fortunate enough to bring these worthless documents to their local Post Offices before wiring money to the sender find out that they were about to fall off a financial cliff.
Anyone accepting postal money orders, including postal personnel, bank tellers, and those receiving payment via postal money orders for products or services need to know how to identify a counterfeit money order. A genuine postal money order contains a repeating watermark of Benjamin Franklin that passes through an open oval area located on the left-hand side of the order. It also includes a security thread with the capital letters “USPS” running both forward and backward that becomes visible when the money order is held up to a light. On the newer series of money orders, these security strips appear as a shiny metallic silver, interweaving in and out of the paper. Held up to a light, the strip is solid, running from the top to the bottom of the money order. Under the same light, the same strip on a counterfeit will appear dotted because it is painted on the surface. On the older series, the thread will appear black with white lettering. On the front of the money order, denomination amounts appear in two separate locations. Serial numbers on sequentially printed orders increase in numeric order from 00 to 99, independent of the last digit which also increases from 0 to 8, and cycles back again to 0. Most counterfeiters miss this detail and print sequential serial numbers using the very last two digits. Discoloration of the denomination amount indicates erasure and alteration, flagging the likelihood of fraud. The maximum value for a domestic postal money order is $1,000 ($700 for an international money order).
In most cases, a counterfeit money order lacks either the watermark or the security thread found in a real document. However, there is a type of counterfeit money order that contains all of the security features of “real” ones, known as “raised” money orders. These fraudulent documents were originally authentic money orders that were printed on genuine postal stock by the Postal Service. They were issued for one amount but later altered to falsely indicate a higher amount. A real $10 money order, for example, was found to be altered, possibly chemically, to appear to be an $810 money order. These altered versions have become an increasing problem for the Postal Service since they contain the Benjamin Franklin Watermark, security threads, and other features that indicate a genuine article. Alterations are sometimes so professionally engineered that the changes do not cause discoloration around the denomination amounts. To make matters worse, serial numbers on these orders do not generally match those published in the “bad Domestic Money Order” list of the Postal Bulletin because counterfeiters obviously do not report money order serial numbers as “lost or stolen” after they have altered the denomination amounts on these documents.
In addition to matching serial numbers to the fraudulent money order listing contained in the bi-weekly Postal Bulletin, Retail Associates need to make sure that the spelled out denomination amount printed on a customer’s money order does not begin more than a couple of millimeters to the left of the word “amount:.” If the spelled out amount begins, for example, almost an inch to the left of “amount:” this clearly indicates that someone has added additional lettering to change the designated amount of the document. Spelled out amounts on fraudulently altered (raised) money orders begin to the left of the word amount because it’s much more difficult for the counterfeiter to erase and reprint the entire line of text in order to change the designated amount.
Postal personnel and others accepting postal money orders need to take all steps needed to verify the validity of these documents. They need to scrutinize any differences in either the font size or the type of lettering used in the spelled out amount, as added text may not match the exact style of the original text.
Additional steps in analyzing postal money orders could prevent a great deal of revenue loss for the Postal Service and help to reduce the likelihood of a scam perpetrated upon an unsuspecting victim.
Anyone who confirms that they have received a counterfeit postal money order should immediately contact their local U.S. Postal Inspection Service™ office or call the fraud hotline, Monday-Friday at 1-800-372-8347.