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Most unsolicited checks are scams - this one highlights a little-known refund that's legit

Lana Tagen almost tossed the surprise check for more than $1,000 thinking it was a scam. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE -- I've warned for years that most unsolicited checks are merely scams to get you to make a deposit and wire back part of the money.

But, as Lana Tagen found out, depending on how you pay your credit card bills, you might get an unexpected check that's legit.

Tagen was torn when she opened the envelope with a return address from Chase Card Services. It was a check for $1,039.27 with a letter attached, "Enclosed please find a credit balance refund check...."

"I had dollar signs in my eyes," said Tagen. "I was ready to take this to the bank and deposit it in to my account."

But, since Tagen wasn't expecting any money from her credit card company, she decided to take the check to her local Chase branch and have a teller take a look. Then she contacted me, fearing it was a new angle on the old counterfeit check scams.

"She checked the account number, and it was no good," Tagen said of the teller, "And she asked to take a copy to give to her manager to address. I think if that if I would have taken the check to my bank and deposited it, I would have gotten a fee for depositing a check that wasn't any good."

Although her bank was suspicious, the letter that came with the check contained an important clue. It instructed Tagen to call the number on the back of her credit card if she had any questions. Scammers never instruct you to call a number you already have.

Lana called her credit card company and learned she'd overpaid her credit card bill. She later confessed to a habit of paying her full balance every month then adding extra to buildup a sort of "shopping stash." Banks call it negative balance.

"A negative balance is basically just kind of a jargony way to say that you have a credit on your credit card account. So basically the bank would owe you money," said Matt Schulz, Senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

Banks don't like negative balances. By law, they must refund your money upon request. After six months, they must make an attempt to return your money regardless of whether you ask.

That's a good thing in Tagen's case. Before I left her, she produced a second, smaller rebate check that she had decided not to cash, because she mistakenly figured it was fake.

Be aware that paying more than your full balance on a credit account can delay your payment confirmation. Many banks want to make sure the full payment is good before they'll confirm your payment date.

You should also know that a negative balance can put you under suspicion for fraud. A pattern of negative balances can be a red flag for money laundering.

And Schulz said be sure to stop all scheduled monthly payments to accounts you no longer use. That's another way to accumulate a negative balance, and trigger contact from your bank or credit card company.

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