Looking for Anomalies in Check Overpayment Scam Correspondence


After agreeing to purchase the item or service you are selling, the remote buyer offers a check for an amount larger than you requested, with a polite request that you forward the difference to the buyer’s friend or colleague. You deposit the check, wait for it to clear, and send the funds to the designated party. What could possibly go wrong?

This is the gist of the check overpayment scam, which debuted on the Internet around 2002 according to Scopes.com. In 2004, FTC warned about initial variations of the scam, which began with the scammer agreeing to buy the item advertised online by the victim. A modern variation starts as a response to an ad for private lessons, placed on a site such as Craigslist:

"How are you doing today?I want a private lessons for my daughter,Mary. Mary is a 13 year old girl, home schooled and she is ready to learn. I would like the lessons to be in your home/studio. Please I want to know your policy with regard to the fees,cancellations, and make-up lessons."

How might you determine whether the sender has malicious intent? The lack of spaces after some punctuation marks seems strange. Also, a legitimate message would have probably included some details specific to the lessons being requested. The scammer probably excluded such details, because he or she used the same text for multiple victims, who offer different services. The message above didn’t include the recipient on the To: line, supporting the theory that the scammer sent it to multiple people.

Concerned recipients might look up some of the unusual phrases from this message, in which case they’d see numerous reports about scams that include phrases from the text above. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.)

If the victim responds to the original email, the scammer continues to weave the web of deceit:

"I’m a single parent who always want the best for my daughter and I would be more than happy if you can handle Mary very well for me. I would have loved to bring Mary for "meet and greet"interviews before the lessons commence, which I think is a normal way to book for lessons but am in Honolulu,Hawaii right now for a new job appointment. So,it will not be possible for me to come for the meeting. Mary will be coming for the lessons from my cousin’s location which is very close to you. Although,Mary and my cousin are currently in the UK and I want to finalize the arrangement for the lessons before they come back to the United States because that was my promise to Mary before they left for the UK."

"As for the payment, I want to pay for the three month lessons upfront which is $780 and I’m paying through a certified cashier’s check.Hope this is okay with you?"

I wouldn’t point to any specific aspect of this message as malicious, but the tone feels a bit off, even for a person who might be a non-native English speaker. The phrase “handle Mary very well for me” is strange. Also, it seems unusual to pay for private lessons using a cashier’s check. In addition, the message has more details about Mary and the sender’s travel than one would expect in this context. The scammer is probably doing this to justify a request that will be presented to the victim later.

If the recipient writes back, the scammer responds:

"My cousin will get in touch with you for the final lessons arrangement immediately they are back from the UK. I will want you to handle Mary very well for me because she is all I have left ever since her mother’s death four years ago. Being a single parent, It’s not easy but I believe God is on my side."

Several aspects of this message might trigger a careful reader’s anomaly detector. Again we see the strange phrase “handle Mary very well.” Also, the sender offers extraneous detail that don’t belong in the context of this email discussion, perhaps attempting to establish an emotional connection on the basis of death in the family and religion. There is more:

"I also want to let you know that the payment will be more than the cost for the three month lessons. So, as soon as you receive the check, I will like you to deduct the money that accrues to the cost of the lessons and you will assist me to send the rest balance to my cousin. This remaining balance is meant for Mary and my cousin’s flight expenses down to the USA, and also to buy the necessary materials needed for the lessons. I think,I should be able to trust you with this money?"

Now we see the classic element of the check overpayment scam. The sender is appealing to the recipient’s honesty and perhaps hopes to build upon the emotional response evoked in the earlier paragraph.

Scopes.com explains that the scam works because FTC “requires banks to make money from cashier’s, certified, or teller’s checks available in one to five days. Consequently, funds from checks that might not be good are often released into payees’ accounts long before the checks have been honored by their issuing banks. High quality forgeries can be bounced back and forth between banks for weeks before anyone catches on to their being worthless.”

Watch out for situations where a buyer is willing to overpay and asks for your help in forwarding the remainder of the funds to someone else. Also, look for anomalies that might indicate malicious intent, such as strange tone, unusual phrases, unnecessary details and uncommon punctuation. If you notice such aspects of the text, research them on the web before deciding whether to continue your correspondence.

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Lenny Zeltser


About the Author

I transform ideas into successful outcomes, building on my 25 years of experience in cybersecurity. As the CISO at Axonius, I lead the security program to earn customers' trust. I'm also a Faculty Fellow at SANS Institute, where I author and deliver training for incident responders. The diversity of cybersecurity roles I've held over the years and the accumulated expertise, allow me to create practical solutions that drive business growth.

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