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How’s your Latin? Do the words “caveat emptor” mean anything to you? I only had one year of Latin in high school, but fortunately, I remember those two words translate to “buyer beware.” Sometimes the seller needs to beware, too.

One of the many worthwhile features of being a Lancaster Farming subscriber is the ability to buy and sell items using the free Mailbox Market ads. We’ve sold our beef cattle through these ads and have also bought items on occasion. As with everything else these days, buying and selling items requires vigilance to avoid being scammed. For that reason, I’ve decided to share an experience an acquaintance of mine recently had when advertising the sale of a piece of farm equipment in Mailbox Markets. Fortunately, he was alert enough to be suspicious and to do some further checking.

The seller received a call from the would-be buyer, who offered to pay the agreed-upon price and said he would send a check in the full amount and then arrange to pick up the piece of machinery. It seemed like a happy ending was in the works for all concerned until the promised check did not arrive in the mail.

Before the seller had even gotten concerned enough to call the buyer about not receiving the check, the buyer called and said he was going to send a second check in an additional amount to cover shipping charges. He asked the seller to make a check payable to the hauler who was coming to pick it up. The seller inquired why the buyer couldn’t just write a check directly to the hauler and was given a vague excuse related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beware of Fishy Checks

By now, the seller was becoming a bit leery. The first check in the amount of the originally agreed-upon selling price never arrived. Instead, a Priority Mail envelope arrived in the U.S. mail with the return address of an out-of-state messenger service. The only enclosure inside the envelope was a single check in an amount that was nearly double the agreed-upon sales price for the farm equipment.

The check had the name of an out-of-state bank on it (from a state at the opposite end of the country than the state the envelope was mailed from). On its memo line was the name of the apparent buyer, though it was somewhat different than the name the buyer had previously provided to the seller.

The check was not a personal check, but was labeled “Official Check” and it bore two signatures that looked to be signed electronically rather than with an actual pen. The implication seemed to be that this was a cashier’s check, which had been paid for at the bank where the buyer had an account — but the words “cashier’s check” did not appear anywhere on the check.

The seller became even more suspicious because a bank in yet a third state was listed as “payable through” on the check. Fortunately, the seller decided to do a bit of online research. He looked up the name of both banks shown on the check. Both were actual financial institutions in their respective states, but then he looked up the routing number on the check.

That was when he learned the routing number was actually that of a bank in the Philadelphia area, which had previously been misappropriated and used by numerous scammers on counterfeit cashier’s checks, mainly for online purchases. It was at this point that the seller fully realized what was going on. The buyer wanted him to write a check to the hauler in the amount over and above the sales price of the equipment. The seller would then be out that sizable sum of money and the scammer’s bogus “cashier’s check” would bounce.

The seller contacted the buyer to say the piece of farm machinery was no longer for sale and asked for an address to which the buyer’s check could be returned. The scam-artist “buyer” then called him an obscenity and that was the end of their communication.

While this incident happened to indirectly involve Mailbox Markets, this same kind of scam can happen with any want ads or internet sales, so beware and be wise. If something sounds fishy, it might be just that. Check further and cancel the deal if it feels wrong.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.

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