Anne Haley of Cincinnati, David Williams and his wife Kelly of Madison, Alabama, Natalie Smith and Alice Puett of Virginia Beach, and Julie DiMaggio of northeast North Carolina are all victims of a scam that is not particularly sophisticated but is very profitable for the scammer.
The fraud is check washing and costs consumers and banks over $1 billion every year and is increasing at an alarming rate.
Not to be confused with money laundering, check washing is a scam in which criminals steal checks from mailboxes and change the name of the payee (the person receiving the money) to their own, and often, the amount of the check.
Check washing is a crime that has been around for nearly as long as checks have been. While paying bills online is becoming increasingly popular, you would think the crime itself would be in decline as well. You would also think, with the incredible advances in technology, it would be impossible to erase and replace the payee’s name or the amount of the check.
Think again. It is actually pretty easy. The criminals snatch mail from mailboxes hoping to find checks being sent to pay mortgages, utilities, or other bills. Then, using chemicals found in common household cleaning products, erase the ink the victim used to fill out the check and then rewrite the check to themselves.
Unfortunately, it is only when victims start getting “past due” notices from debtors, or find the fraudulent activity on their bank statements, that they discover the checks they have written have been stolen. Often, weeks or months may have passed, with victims possibly having lost thousands of dollars and even more if a criminal rewrote the amount of the check for a higher amount.
So how do you protect yourself from this growing crime? We recommend the following:
• Do not place outgoing mail in your mailbox and put up the flag. That flag is literally a “red flag” for scammers to steal your mail. If you must leave the outgoing mail in your box, place the payment in the box just before your mail person’s normal collection time. A better alternative is to deposit your mail in a secure United States Postal Service mailbox. To be even safer, put mail in a box inside the post office. (I only say this because the two ladies’ mail in Virginia Beach was deposited in a box outside the post office and it was broken into).
• Check your bank account on a regular basis, looking for unusual or suspicious activity, such as lower than expected balances or checks for higher amounts than you usually write. If you see something suspicious or unusual contact your bank immediately. They can be very helpful in restoring stolen funds.
• Use gel pens rather than ball point pens and leave as little space as possible between numbers so criminals can’t fill in empty spaces.
• Use security envelopes with a patterned lining that prevents someone from seeing the envelope contains a check by holding it up to the light.
• Use online bill paying when possible. It’s not as difficult as you may think and affords you more security and protections than if you send a check through the mail.
For more tips on how to protect yourself from scammers go to bbb.org or give us a call at the office at 419-223-7010.
Cheryl Parson is the president of the Better Business Bureau of the West Central Ohio Branch.