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How to protect your personal checks from “check washing”

Published: May. 19, 2022 at 6:26 PM CDT
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The checks are in the mail, and unfortunately thieves these days are well aware of that. Reports of mail theft are soaring nationwide, as criminal rings now steal, “wash,” and rewrite personal checks.

Joe Duffy wants to know what he can do, after his elderly father’s bank account was drained.

“I mean this is his life savings,” he said.

At first, he thought the bank made an error.

But it was no mistake: Someone stole more than $90,000 from Duffy’s dad’s bank account, almost his entire retirement.

“I don’t know what percentage of the population isn’t gonna get some form of angina or have a heart attack over the fact that $93,000 was removed from their account,” Duffy said.

He says believes the check was stolen from a blue on-street mailbox in February, by a thief with a master mailbox key, according to news reports of a key theft in the area.

What the thieves can do with your checks

The crook then changed the recipient’s name and amount, and cashed the check.

“Originally it was made out for $147 to pay one of his bills,” Duff said, “but they washed all that out.”

Instead, the brazen thieves wrote in $32,000 (according to the bank’s scan of the check), and were able to deposit or cash the check, Duffey says. But worse, using his dad’s signature, routing number, and account number, the sophisticated crooks printed more checks for thousands of dollars more.

David Maimon is a cybersecurity expert at Georgia State University, who says rings of criminals are now breaking into blue mailboxes, or stealing the master keys and simply opening them.

“It is getting much worse,” Maimon told us.

He says thieves use chemicals to remove handwritten ink off checks, then sell them through underground online networks.

“They don’t want to cash all those checks themselves,” he said, “they don’t want to raise red flags, so they offer the checks to other criminals across the country to do the job for them.”

So the person who grabbed your check is usually not the person who changes the name and cashes it.

What you can do

So how can you protect yourself when mailing a check?

The first tips from security experts may seem pretty obvious:

  • Never leave a check in your unlocked personal mailbox at your front door or driveway: It’s not 1958 anymore.
  • Even at an official blue mailbox, check the collection times. You want to make sure the mail will be picked up in the next couple of hours.
  • If possible, mail your checks from your local Post Office.

Security experts also suggest that when writing a personal check you:

  • Use a gel pen, not a ballpoint pen, on checks.
  • Write in black ink, not blue, which is harder to wash.
  • Pay bills electronically when possible.

The USPS told us in a written statement “The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is committed to protecting Postal Service employees and customers and preserving the integrity of the U.S. Mail. The agency “will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators that use the U.S. Mail system to further their illegal activity.”

We contacted Duffy’s bank, Fifth Third Bank, which is now investigating.

Meantime, experts say the fewer paper checks you send these days the safer you’ll be.