Check washing is a crime that one can unfortunately fall victim to pretty easily, and it can be difficult to remedy once a fraudulent check has been processed on your account. While check fraud has been around for ages, this latest scam is regrettably making headlines more often.

What is Check Washing?

Criminals steal checks that are already filled out and chemically wash them to remove payee and dollar amount information. They then write in a new payee and amount before fraudulently depositing the washed check.    According to the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), this is a very big problem as Postal Inspectors recover more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks and money orders each year. But there are ways to protect yourself.

Is it safe to mail checks?

Whenever possible, choosing online banking or electronic forms of bill paying are safer options. With safeguards such as multifactor authentications and the ability to track payments in real time, peace of mind that your money went where you intended it to is available almost instantly. However, if there are times that you must send a check, it’s a good idea to take precautions.

  • If you are sending your check from the post office, it’s a good idea to go inside the building and mail from there. Criminals have broken into mailboxes outside of the post office by using a string with something sticky attached in order to “fish” out envelopes.
  • Check the pickup times on blue USPS collection boxes and make sure that if you are mailing from there, it is before the last scheduled pickup so that the mail doesn’t sit overnight in the box.
  • Do not leave mail in your home mailbox. If your mail often sits until you arrive home later in the day, you may want to upgrade to a locking personal mailbox. If you are going on vacation, place a hold on your mail or have a friend or neighbor collect it.
  • Write all checks with gel pens. The ink is impervious to most chemicals.
  • Consider using certified mail, FedEx or UPS if you want the ability to track that your check is safely enroute and ultimately received.
  • Pick up new check orders at a local bank branch instead of having them shipped to your home.
  • Consider investing in checks that contain anti-fraud elements such as electronic inks, hidden watermarks, or microprinted lines that cannot be duplicated clearly.

Suffolk County policy recently warned that many local residents have been victimized in a check-washing scam.  One check originally written for $100 was changed to $52,000.  The police explained that this is a crime of opportunity and is not targeting any one type of victim but just criminals trying to obtain checks and fraudulently cash them for any amount they choose.

What should you do if you suspect you have become victim to check washing?

It is a good financial habit to monitor your bank account activity regularly, but extra important if you are mailing checks. If you think a check has been compromised, there are a few things you should do.

  1. Contact the payee and confirm if they have received the check.
  2. Contact your bank or financial institution and stop payment on the check if it hasn’t already cleared and you suspect fraud.
  3. File a report with the Postal Inspection Service.
  4. File a report with your local police department.
  5. Contact credit reporting bureaus and continue to monitor your accounts for any suspicious activity.

According to a report in American Banker, “banks typically reimburse their customers when a fraudulent or stolen check gets posted against their account, but getting repaid for a bad check has become a long, drawn-out affair.”  To minimize your risk and avoid the frustration of trying to recover stolen funds, take the precautions you can to make payments safely. If you have any questions, please contact us.