When Midge Laurin, of Chicago, Illinois, mailed out a $30 check, she had no idea it would be intercepted by a scammer and written out to someone else to the tune of $9,475. Check-washing scams like this are on the rise, and can leave victims struggling to reclaim their lost funds for months. Here’s what you need to know about these scams and how to avoid them.
How the scams play out
In a check-washing scam, the target places a check in the mail, and it is then stolen by scammers who nick envelopes from private mailboxes or lift them out of public mailboxes using “fishing rods” made of strings attached to a sticky substance. With check in hand, the scammer uses ordinary household chemicals, like acetone or bleach, to erase the ink off the stolen checks. Finally, they’ll rewrite the numbers and/or the payee before depositing the checks into their own accounts.
Sometimes, the scammer will take the ruse one step further by using the checking account details found on the check to commit further crimes against the check-writer. This may include producing counterfeit checks in the victim’s name, as well as fake IDs, driver’s licenses and passports. The victim may only learn about these crimes when they begin receiving overdraft notices or are informed that their ID is no longer valid.
Unfortunately, check washing may not be discovered for weeks, or even months after its occurrence. Sometimes, the victim will only learn of the ruse when they review their monthly checking account statement and see that the check amount and/or payee has been altered. Or, they may only find out about it when the intended recipient reaches out to let the check-writer know they still have not received the check. The scam’s discovery is more likely to be delayed when the scammers have not modified any information on the check and have simply stolen and deposited a check made out to “cash”.
In addition, many financial institutions do not offer complete protection on fraud that is not reported within a few days of its occurrence. Some offer partial protection for up to 60 days.
Law enforcement agencies on local and federal levels, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI, have task forces to help stop check washing. They offer the following strategies for keeping your checks and your information safe from scams:
- Whenever possible, use mobile and online banking services and P2P systems as a replacement for checks.
- When writing checks, use black ink, preferably the gel kind. The ink found in blue ballpoint pens can be easily removed with acetone.
- Don’t raise your mailbox flag when there are bill payments inside. Hand this mail directly to your carrier or mail it from the post office.
- Retrieve your mail daily and never leave the mailbox full overnight. If you’ll be traveling, you can arrange for the post office to hold your mail for up to 30 days. Alternatively, have a friend or trusted neighbor retrieve your mail so it doesn’t pile up.
- When mailing checks, use envelopes that have security tinting.
- Shred or burn all canceled checks, checks deposited through your mobile app, credit card statements and bills.
- Review your checking account activity frequently. Ensure all checks have cleared for the correct amounts and to the correct payees. You can generally access this information through your financial institution’s mobile banking app or website.
- Store your checks in a secure place within your home.
- Avoid making checks out to “cash”. Instead, write out your checks to a specific person or business.
Check washing can wreak havoc on a victim’s finances before they even know it’s occurred. Follow the tips outlined here to keep your checks safe.
Your Turn: Have you sidestepped a check-washing scam? Tell us about it in the comments!