Thieves target Houston charity that helps struggling families

KPRC 2 Investigates explains how ‘overpayment fraud’ could happen to anyone

Money is tight for a lot of families right now. It’s even tough for non-profits that depend on donations to survive. One Houston charity is warning others about a scam disguised as a donation that could have cost them thousands of dollars. Investigator Amy Davis has the warning.

This really could happen to anyone so we hope that by sharing how this scam works you will recognize it if it happens to you. Raise Up Families is a Houston charity that helps families on the verge of eviction. The organization depends on donations to help others and that’s what they thought they were getting when the director received a kind letter.

It seemed like a heartfelt email to Angela Burgess, Executive Director of Raise Up Families.

The self-described single mom who wrote the letter said she wanted to make a donation. In part, the email read: “I’m writing to thank you for the excellent work you do to support single mothers. Because I experience the challenges of raising a child on my own, it is simple for me to understand and picture the impact you must have on people’s lives.”

KPRC 2 Investigates fake check scam involving Houston charity. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“Without funding from the community, from foundations, individuals, businesses, we are not able to run our program,” said Burgess.

Burgess sent the info and days later a check arrived.

“I opened up the envelope and there was an overnight second-day envelope and a check enclosed for $13,000. So, I emailed her and said, thank you so much. This is going to go so far in helping us continue to serve families in our community.”

KPRC 2 Investigates fake check scam involving Houston charity. (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

That grateful feeling didn’t last long when she received this bizarre response.

“I just realized that I sent the wrong amount. I meant to send $5,000. I’m going to send you my bank account information. Can you please send the remainder to me?”

Burgess knew it was a scam.

“It was so disappointing because we really need the help and support. Like every nonprofit,” said Burgess.

This is a check overpayment scam. We’ve warned you about this type of thing before because it could happen to anyone, like if you are selling things online. Someone sends you a check - then says they accidentally wrote it for too much and asks you to send some of the money back.

Why check overpayment scams often work

The Federal Trade Commission says these types of scams often work. Why?

  • 1. The checks look real, even to bank employees.
  • 2. It can take weeks for a bank to figure out the check is fake.
  • 3. The check “clears” you see the money in your account and think it’s legit.

But by law, banks have to make deposited funds available quickly, usually within two days.

Burgess says working with nonprofits they often have donors who are very private or want to remain anonymous, so the email initially didn’t raise a red flag for her.

“I’ve worked with donors who are highly private, highly quirky. I’ve worked with donors who are deaf and can’t communicate on the phone. So, you see a lot of different things,” said Burgess.

Your best bet: Don’t rely on a check unless you know the person. Which isn’t always an option for charities. That’s why Burgess wanted to tell her story.

“I really wanted to warn others. Be aware,” she said.

“Emily” stopped responding when Burgess wouldn’t send the money back.

What you should know about check and bank fraud

You may think people don’t use checks anymore and fraud is rare, but check fraud is still one of the number one ways thieves get money from your bank account. In a recent Ask Amy episode, Amy goes over some of the ways thieves target your bank account and what you can do to protect your money.

UPDATE - After our story aired we heard from a viewer who is a home inspector. He deals with similar emails from would-be scammers. In his case, they email saying they will send the fee for home inspection and add money to pay “their” termine inspector. Luckily this viewer has not fallen for the trick but knows to look out for it! We wanted to share this helpful information with you!

About the Authors:

Award-winning TV producer and content creator. My goal as a journalist is to help people. Faith and family motivate me. Running keeps me sane.

Passionate consumer advocate, mom of 3, addicted to coffee, hairspray and pastries.