Check the check: Learn to scam scammers

Beware of email bearing gifts– or, more precisely, those swearing on a stack o' Bibles that you've won a sweepstakes. That's the word from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Richmond, which explained the shysters' techniques in a recent press release. Unlike the woman who paid $15,000 to claim a nonexistent $4.5 million prize, thankfully, I learned early on that the Internet's full of creeps who deserve my attention only as long as it takes to hit the delete key.

But some of those creeps have given me a new hobby: collecting phony cashier's checks and money orders, which I plan to turn into a scrapbook when I have enough. I realize this undoubtedly means that I have a semi-pathetic life. Be that as it may, if you too have a semi-pathetic life, I recommend this as a cheap (if somewhat lame) pastime.

I started by replying to the Nigerian scam letters we're so mind-numbingly familiar with, in which the wife/son/brother/daughter/housepet of a formally mighty person, who has been assassinated/deposed/felled by a fatal disease, wants our help in smuggling millions of dollars out of Nigeria/the Ivory Coast/Sierra Leone. In return, we get 10 percent of the booty.

For my first foray into the world of jerking jerks around, I assumed the persona of an elderly widow who was deeply affected by the e-mailer's tale of woe and replied with rambling descriptions of my grandson (the computer whiz who'd recently been suspended from school for high-tech hijinks), my late husband (a wonderful man), and members of my bridge club.

The shyster on the other end, after initially expressing sympathy, soon wearied and abruptly demanded action in the form of details about the widow's bank account. At that point the widow, no doubt wounded by his behavior, fell silent.

That was fun, but it took too much time. Nowadays I'll occasionally reply to a sob story and demand a 50 percent cut (which always evokes outrage), but usually I just send them to the trash.

Last spring, however, I discovered a whole new world of online fun when I advertised an apartment in my house in The Hook and the UVA online want ads. Suddenly, I was hearing from people on the other side of the world who were eager to rent the place. This may come as a surprise to readers, but I can be as gullible as a two-year-old– and I actually believed, for a while, that "Steven Warner," a missionary with Christ the King Evangelical Mission International (Lagos, Nigeria chapter), could be coming to Charlottesville for two months and legitimately want to rent my apartment, which I'd advertised as available for short-term lease. Innocently, I told him that the deposit would be $1,300, and he said his sponsors would send me a cashier's check.

Meanwhile, I heard from "Debby Rowe," a geologist in an offshore mining firm in South Africa, who described herself as "a lot of fun to be with." She, too, was coming here on sabbatical, and– amazing coincidence!– wanted to rent my apartment. I only realized things were fishy when she sent me the same message twice about how fun she is, and I told her to get lost.

In mid-June I got what appeared to be a legitimate cashier's check for $7,200 from Acme Portable Machines in Baldwin Park, California, and learned that Pastor Warner's church had included his travel expenses in my check. All I had to do, he informed me, was wire the $5,900 balance to his agent in London.

By then I was wise to his game; I also thought it was a great game for the wise. About that time I decided to remodel the apartment, and took it off the market. Inquiries continued to arrive, however, and I collected three bogus checks in all before the emails stopped coming.

The apartment will be back on the market this spring, though, and I rub my hands in glee at the thought of the fun to come. Semi-pathetic, perhaps, but distinctly rewarding.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.