After years of warning Americans to avoid cashing mystery checks from the mailbox, consumer advocates have an important message for almost anyone who used a credit card overseas between 1996 and 2006. That $18 check showing up from the Foreign Currency Fee Litigation Settlement Fund is actually real.

Trial attorneys led a fight to reclaim some of the overseas transaction surcharges added to the bills of many Visa, MasterCard, and Diners Club cardholders during the affected period. The lawyers asserted that issuing banks failed to adequately inform cardholders about currency conversion charges and other international service fees that have since become commonplace. Most credit cards now charge between 3 and 5 percent for the privilege and security of doing business across international boundaries.

Despite winning approval for a settlement in late 2009, the agreement faced two years of appeals before the Fund could start distributing settlement checks to consumers. Companies contributing to the $336 million settlement fund include Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America, Chase, Citibank, Diners Club (now owned by Discover Financial Services), and HSBC.

Real checks buck trend of scam attempts

Because most members of the affected class may have disregarded previous mailed notices about the lawsuit, the settlement checks surprised many of their recipients. According to the National Fraud Information Center, fake check scams often include instructions to wire part of a check amount back to an overseas location. Other companies use checks to gather signatures for obscure service contracts. Attorney Merrill Davidoff confirmed to Gannett news service reporters that legitimate checks have been sent to class participants in geographic waves, with residents of the eastern United States getting theirs first.

Some banks have turned consumer sentiment to their advantage by eliminating foreign transaction fees on select credit cards. For instance, no Capital One credit card charges fees for overseas purchases.