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It usually starts when a seller posts a big-ticket item on Craigslist.

Then comes a text message from an eager buyer.

Next comes the cashier's check, which looks real enough. But the check is written out for more than the item's listed price, so the buyer asks the seller to wire the difference to a shipping company.

Often, the deal seems too good to be true. And more often than not, if a situation seems too good to be true, it probably is.

This type of scam, involving online sales, fake cashier's checks, overpayments and requests to wire funds to far-away shipping companies, is playing out on susceptible victims in Sonoma County and beyond.

Scams of all kinds are on the rise as more people shop online, and the Better Business Bureau has been warning consumers to be on the lookout.

"The scammers are getting good," said Rex Albright, spokesman for the bureau. "They're getting better and more sophisticated, and the tools that they use are getting better."

In May, the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center, issued warnings about popular counterfeit check scams targeting real estate agents and attorneys.

"That doesn't happen just on Craigslist, that happens a lot," Albright said. "It's unfortunate that people see that, and they get a little bit excited, and they don't do the due diligence to follow through on the funds."

Bart Edson, 49, of Santa Rosa said he fell victim to such a ruse when he tried to sell his upright Victorian piano on Craigslist. He had been advertising the piano for weeks, and his first attempt to get $750 for the instrument failed. So he dropped the price to $500, but still the phone didn't ring.

So when Edson got a text message from an out-of-town fellow who wanted to buy the piano for his church, he was excited. The buyer sent Edson a cashier's check for $1,990 and asked Edson to cash it and wire the difference to his shipping company.

Edson thought that was a little strange. But he brought the check to Redwood Credit Union and deposited it without incident, so he thought that meant the check was good.

Eventually, the creeping sensation that something was horribly wrong caught up with him. But it didn't sink in until after Edson said he had wired nearly $1,500 to what he now assumes was a scammer because the shippers never showed up and the buyer stopped answering his calls. By then, it was too late.

"I thought with a cashier's check that I was 100 percent safe and protected," Edson said. "And I think that's part of the scam. They know that people think that."

What the scammers also probably know is that banks are required by federal regulation to make funds from a cashier's check available for withdrawal by the business day after deposit.

After depositing cashier's checks, financial institutions forward them to the Federal Reserve for processing. Those checks are either processed successfully or returned as bad within five to 10 business days, said Robin McKenzie, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Redwood Credit Union.

If the check is returned as unpaid, the funds are withdrawn from the depositor's account, McKenzie said. That's what happened to Edson, who's now out the $1,500 he wired plus fees. Almost two weeks after he deposited the check, the credit union told him it was no good and then withdrew the money from his account, Edson said.

Tellers are trained to spot these types of scams, said Manuel Pereira, assistant vice president of audit and security at Redwood Credit Union. But the fake checks often can look surprisingly real, even bearing sophisticated, built-in security features, Pereira said.

"Fraudsters have access to the technology, and they utilize it, and so it can at times make it extremely difficult to tell," he said.

Bankers caution their customers to deal with people who they can meet in person, never accept overpayments and don't wire money to strangers.

"At the end of the day, a person is responsible for the legitimacy of the funds that are being presented," said Mishel Kaufman, senior vice president of risk management at Redwood Credit Union.

The credit union has been educating its customers about scams and has seen a decline in the incidence of fake cashier's checks, she said.

But Edson said customers are vulnerable.

"If the cashiers can't tell a good one from a bad one, how do they expect the consumers to?" Edson said.

At Exchange Bank, tellers see about a dozen fake checks a month, half of which are fake cashier's checks, said Mike Leonard, vice president, security officer and fraud examiner at Exchange Bank. Although tellers have been trained to recognize them, fakes slip through and are deposited about once a month.

Scams involving online purchases, overpayments and fake cashier's checks are common, Leonard said.

"I've seen them all," he said. "They all basically work on the premise that you're going to get some kind of check, whether it's a cashier's check or a business check, and hence you've got good funds in your hand, and you're going to have something to pay."

Fake cashier's checks have been around for a while. But in the past, they were easier to detect, with telltale signs, such as bleach stains or blurry bank logos, bankers said. The bad fakes are still out there, but better fakes are getting harder to detect.

"It does happen all the time," said Carl Chapman, supervising inspector of the multiagency Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force. "I've used Craigslist myself to sell things, and you can usually guarantee that within the next few hours, you're going to get a message that says, 'I'm interested in your item that you have for sale.' "

Craigslist's website is speckled with warnings about scams at every turn, instructing users to beware of deals involving Western Union, wire transfers, cashier's checks, money orders, shipping and lofty promises.

Edson has seen those warnings.

"It got so familiar to me that I stopped paying attention to it," he said.

Craigslist did not respond to requests for comment placed over several days.

Many around Sonoma County have received similar suspicious messages after advertising items for sale.

Issa Shatnawi, a local car dealer who used to be in the export business, advertised cars on Craigslist and once got a similar cashier's check. The out-of-town buyer sent $35,000 for a car advertised at $30,000. He said the check covered shipping costs, and he asked Shatnawi to wire the difference to a shipping company.

The check looked real enough, but Shatnawi took it to Exchange Bank and learned it was fake. Then he called his enthusiastic buyer.

"An hour later, the phone was disconnected," Shatnawi said. "With Craigslist you have to be very careful."

It may seem like the type of scam that a careful buyer or seller wouldn't fall for. But in a tough economy, sometimes the need for money outweighs common sense.

"It certainly was not a normal transaction, and when you're in it, and you haven't got any movement of it because you're trying to sell, you sort of overlook the first slightly weird thing," Edson said. "I'm changing careers, I'm in the middle of a divorce and I'm just trying to get money, and I just got nailed even worse than I already am."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

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