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Prison Pen Pal Money Order Scam

Singles in search of romance are increasingly turning to personal ads. But so are criminals looking for an easy mark. Prisoners' personal ads have proliferated in recent years, and some prisoners may be looking for genuine contact with life outside their prison walls. However, many ads placed by prisoners are part of a sophisticated mail fraud scheme that misuses postal money orders to bilk consumers of their hard earned savings.

Be aware of the telltale signs of this unusual scheme. If you begin to write letters to a prisoner who is attempting to cultivate you for his mail fraud scheme, he will slowly attempt to gain your trust and confidence. If you are a single woman, he may even send you love letters and handsome photos, and promise to marry you upon his release. Male prisoners posing as women try to lure men into the scheme as well.

While confessing their love for you, he will also admit that he is serving a prison term for a tax violation or other non-violent offense. But he will say his prison term is almost up, and he's looking forward to starting a new life together with you when he is freed.

Eventually, he will ask you to cash one or more postal or other money orders for him, claiming that he needs the money to pay attorney fees or court fines. Where does he get each high-value money order (often as much as $700)? He will obtain them from an accomplice outside the prison who buys them in small denominations (often only $1) and then smuggles them inside the prison, where inmates alter them to reflect higher values.

When you assist your pen pal by cashing any such money order--and sometimes there are many of them totaling thousands of dollars--you are told to send the money to a "friend" of the prisoner, whom you're told is helping with his legal defense. Of course, this friend is the outside accomplice. You will be told first to deposit the money orders in your personal bank account for temporary "safe-keeping" and then to pay out the funds to the outside accomplice.

Shortly after sending the money, you will receive a cruel "Dear Jane or John" letter asking you to understand that your pen pal only did what he or she "had to do" to survive, and now that he's out, the relationship is over. But he's not out. He's still in prison. And what's even worse, he now has your money, because the bank will charge your account for the phony money orders you deposited. Since the U.S. Postal Service routinely compares all of its cashed postal money orders with the original money order receipts, all altered postal money orders will ultimately be discovered.

Under current law, the person who cashes, or deposits and then withdraws, an altered money order is responsible for its total value--in this case, the altered value. Therefore, shortly after you pay out the temporarily held funds from your bank account, your bank will notify you that you must pay the difference between the issued amount and the raised amount. For example, if you cash a $1 money order that has been altered to $700, you will end up being charged $699 of your own money.

If you have received a money order from a prisoner, you should immediately contact a Postal Inspector through your local post office. And if you a bank teller and are suspicious about the authenticity of a money order you're about to accept, you should refer the customer to the nearest post office.