What is old is new again. Many people continue to pay their household bills by paper checks rather than electronic banking and even when shopping, some people prefer paying by check instead of using a credit card or cash. While there has been much discussion in the news about data breaches involving credit cards, the problems encountered through check washing are still substantial costing consumers and banks more than a billion dollars each year and the problem is getting worse.
Typically, how the scam starts when someone pays a bill with a check, mails the envelope containing the check and then somewhere in transit the check is stolen, washed clean and altered to provide a big payment from the victim’s checking account to the criminal. Check washing is a process by which someone steals a check you have already written and “washes” or removes the name of the payee, often using simple bleach, and also changes the amount. The criminal then cashes your altered check and steals your money.
It is a very simple thing for identity thieves to steal your check from your mailbox if you put it in an envelope to pay a bill and leave it in your mailbox outside your home for your mail carrier to pick up. Identity thieves also break into corner mail collection boxes and steal mail with checks from there too. Finally, rogue clerks at stores may steal your checks as well. It is then a simple thing to take ordinary bleach, acetone or other similar liquids to wash clean the name of the person to whom the check is made out as well as the amount of the check and insert the identity thief’s name and a new amount.
Recently the Port St. Lucie, Florida Police Department warned people about an increase in cases of check washing over the last three months with victims of the scam having left mail with outgoing checks in their mail boxes with the flag up to alert the postal carrier to pick up the mail. Unfortunately, this also alerts scammers cruising your neighborhood, as well.
While businesses can protect themselves from check washing quite readily by using higher technology checks such as those containing three dimensional reflective metallic holograms or checks treated with chemicals that will make the world “void” appear if the check is attempted to be altered, these are costly alternatives for individuals. Fortunately however, you are not powerless and the solution, in fact is quite simple. Instead of writing your checks using a common ball point pen, switch to a gel pen which is a commonly available type of pen whose ink will not vanish under chemical washes. Fountain pens also do not use the type of ink that can be readily washed, but the gel pen is simpler and easier to use (and also less messy).
Another important thing to remember is to cross shred your personal documents including checks that you no longer need and are discarding. Identity thieves go through your trash for their treasure including checks that they can use to make counterfeit checks using your account.
Also, check your banks statements promptly after receiving them for signs of theft. If you do report checking account fraud more than thirty days after receiving your bank statement, the bank does not have to reimburse you for fraudulent, counterfeit checks. Finally, if you already aren’t doing so, you should consider paying your bills electronically which can be done in an extremely safe manner.
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