While the U.S. Treasury has taken steps to make it harder to counterfeit American currency, it's still apparently easy to make up fake money orders. Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe reports his office has noted reports of a surge in schemes involving sophisticated counterfeiting of money orders.

As happens more and more these days, the fleecing of victims often begins in an e-mail in-box. Several Russellville, Arkansas, residents and banks have recently found that what they thought were authentic Unites States postal money orders were, in fact, counterfeit.

Russellville police have recovered counterfeit money orders totaling $20,000 -- money that, for the most part, had been sent overseas as part of the scam.

According to the F.B.I. and postal inspectors, international forgers - mostly in Nigeria, but also in other parts of West Africa and Eastern Europe - appear to have turned new attention to money orders. In many cases, unwitting victims, often contacted by an e-mail message or in an online chat room, are tricked 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.

"Technological advances in printing have led to convincing forgeries of legitimate money orders," Beebe stated, adding that ordinary consumers can easily be fooled.

Whether using e-mail, online auctions, or the telephone, the scammer expresses an interest in purchasing merchandise and then offers to send a money order through the mail. In a typical swindle, a seller is sent a counterfeit postal money order in excess of the cost of the item being ordered. The seller is then asked to keep the cost of the purchase and ship back the balance in cash, along with the merchandise.

When the victim cashes or deposits the postal money order, he learns the truth: the money order is a fake and he has been scammed. If the money has been deposited, the victim's account is debited for the full amount. At the very least, the victim loses the merchandise already shipped.

Beebe says U. S. Postal money orders have many security features to help verify their legitimacy. To check that a money order is authentic, hold it up to the light and look for Ben Franklin images repeated on the left side (top to bottom) and a dark security line running (top to bottom) to the right of the Franklin watermarks, with the tiny letters "USPS" facing backward and forward. If either of these security features is not present, the postal money order is not legitimate.

Also, the consumer should know that denominations appear in two locations. U.S. Postal money orders are printed on crisp, textured, paper stock and carry a maximum value of $1,000. The maximum value for international postal money orders is $700. Beebe warned consumers to be especially careful when doing business with unknown individuals and to check with his office or the Postal Service when in doubt.