Fake checks have been the stock in trade of online fraud artists for years. Now authorities are noting a surge in schemes involving sophisticated counterfeiting of a different form of payment: United States postal money orders. And the fleecing of victims often begins in an e-mail in-box.

In the last six months, the F.B.I. and postal inspectors say, international forgers – mostly in Nigeria, but also in Ghana and Eastern Europe – appear to have turned new attention to the United States postal money order. More than 3,700 counterfeit postal money orders were intercepted from October to December, exceeding the total for the previous 12 months, according to postal inspectors.

Moreover, 160 arrests have been made in the United States since October in cases where people have been suspected of knowingly receiving fraudulent postal money orders or trying to cash them, Paul Krenn, a spokesman for the United States Postal Inspection Service, said.

“The quality of what they are producing is very good,” he said, adding that ordinary consumers can easily be fooled. “They are not going to know what they are looking at,” he said.

Despite the arrests, however, the schemes often do not involve attempts by the fraud artists to cash the postal money orders. In many cases, unwitting victims, often contacted by an e-mail message or in an online chat room, are deceived into accepting the bogus money orders as payment for items they are selling, or into cashing the orders in return for a fee. It is the latest twist in a long series of Internet schemes that use bogus financial instruments to bilk unsuspecting victims out of merchandise and cash.

The United States Postal Service would not estimate the dollar value of the counterfeit postal money orders it has intercepted. But law enforcement officials estimate that the amount runs into the millions of dollars.

The trend is significant, because unlike private business checks or even other money orders, the postal money order is generally regarded as one of the more difficult financial documents to counterfeit because of its watermarks, security threads and a rainbow of inked patterns and tones.

The fake money orders have been received by small Internet retailers, classified advertisers or others lured into an Internet confidence scheme, from sellers of Siberian Husky puppies in Iowa to art dealers in Indiana. Some consumers, authorities say, are simply not using common sense.

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