Free money!

So far this week, someone has sent $9,000 – unsolicited – to my house.

As a reporter, I don't typically write about myself, but the fact that the mystery money came in the form of presumably bogus $500 travelers' checks struck me as somewhat newsworthy. It was obviously some sort of scam, but what kind?

The checks have arrived six at a time in UPS next-day mailers over the course of three days – as recently as yesterday, so there's no reason to think another batch isn't on its way. But they came without instructions or correspondence of any kind. The first envelope was mailed from Australia and addressed to my wife. The second was addressed as if it had been sent from our house to a P.O. box in Florida, but had been returned undeliverable.

There were no other meaningful clues as to why someone would send us counterfeit travelers checks, so I called the FBI. Even though the agent wearily told me there are countless mail-fraud scams going around, I was surprised at the level of disinterest I encountered. If I wanted to send them the checks, fine, but they were unlikely to launch a big investigation; otherwise, I should simply throw them away.

Then I called Amex, which confirmed that the check numbers are fake. They, too, welcomed me to send them the checks or trash 'em. Check fraud is quite common, I was told, but there's no evidence that it's particularly rampant in Atlanta.

Here's what I did learn. Unlike the familiar scheme in which a con man tells his dupe that riches await him – but first he must send some cash to Nigeria – the travelers checks didn't seem to be part of a so-called "advance fee fraud." Instead, I was told, the way the scam usually works is that the dupe is sent phoney checks with instructions to cash them, keep some of the money for himself and send the rest back to the con man.

In our case, however, the con man seems to have forgotten to include the note, an omission that would seem to squash his hope of ill-gotten gains. I was told by the FBI agent that anyone who tried to cash the checks could be charged with the federal crime of passing counterfeit checks. The dupe could plead not-guilty on the argument that he didn't know the checks were fake, but why, the agent wondered, would anyone want to go through that kind of hassle.

So, it looks as if we may continue to receive mysterious envelopes containing fake travelers checks – at least until some absent-minded scam artist realizes he isn't making any money.

(Image of actual received travelers checks)

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