Have you ever sent a check that was cashed, but the recipient said it never arrived? You may be the victim of check washing. Check-washing scams involve changing the payee names and often the dollar amounts on checks and fraudulently depositing them. Oftentimes, these checks are stolen from mailboxes and washed in chemicals to remove the ink. Some scammers will even use copiers or scanners to print fake copies of a check. According to the National Check Fraud Center, check washing takes place to the tune of $815 million every year in the U.S. It is increasing at an alarming rate, but you can take steps to protect yourself.
Using a process known as check washing, mail snatchers erase the ink on a check with chemicals found in common household cleaning products and then “reuse” the checks by rewriting them to themselves. Then when you check your bank statement, you see that your check went through and the amount matches. Just think $300 for your car payment, $1000 for your mortgage, $200 for utilities. It adds up fast! It’s only when you start getting notices from debtors that you discover that the checks you’ve written were stolen. By then, weeks or months may have passed. You might have lost thousands of dollars. Just imagine if a criminal rewrites the check for an even higher amount than you wrote it for!
The problem has grown so severe that many local and federal authorities have formed task forces around the country, with agents from the Postal Inspection Service, U.S. attorney’s office, local police forgery units, FBI, and Secret Service.
They offer the following advice:
- Consider using electronic payments instead of mailing a check. A CCNB representative can help you establish other payment methods.
- Don’t put bills in a residential mailbox. The red flag sticking up is like an invitation to a thief. If you have to leave outgoing mail in your box, do it immediately before the letter carrier comes, and don’t raise the mailbox flag. Better yet, take your mail to work, drop it in a collection box, hand it to a letter carrier, or take it directly to the post office.
- Pick up new books of checks at your local CCNB branch rather than having them shipped directly to your residence.
- Shred or burn canceled checks. If you need to save them, make sure the canceled checks are in a secured area, such as a bank lock box, or a wall safe. Don’t throw them in the trash.
- Check bank statements immediately after receiving them. If you fail to report check fraud within 30 days of receiving your monthly statement, the bank does not have to reimburse your loss.
- Print a return address on an envelope. A signature can be traced, duplicated, or forged.
- Don’t discard credit card records or bills with household trash.
- Deposit mail before last pickup – Deposit your outgoing mail in blue collection boxes before the last pickup or at your local post office.
- Retrieve mail frequently – Never leave your mail in your mailbox overnight
- Hold mail at Post Office – If you’re going on vacation, have your mail held at the Post Office or have it picked up by a friend or neighbor
Important note: The main problem with the check-washing scam is creating a truly blank check. The ink contained in a standard blue ballpoint pen is easily removed with acetone, but black ink can be problematic. Experts say gel pens with black ink provide the best protection against check washing since the gel ink resists chemical stripping and contains pigments that permeate the fibers of the check itself. Check washing is not profitable for the con artist if the checks look altered or bleached. One way to protect yourself against the threat of check washing is to switch from blue to black ink when writing checks and to use a gel pen whenever possible.
Source: National Check Fraud Center and U.S. Post Office