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.