Incidents of stolen checks from home mailboxes or U.S. Postal Service (USPS) collection boxes are on the rise. Recent reports indicate that check washing tactics used on snatched checks is again rearing its ugly head. Check washing scams involve changing the payee names and often the dollar amounts on checks and fraudulently depositing them. Occasionally, 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. In fact, Postal Inspectors recover more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks and money orders every year, but you can take steps to protect yourself.
According to news outlet Bloomberg, a lot of this is being fueled by an underground black market, as thieves can "sell stolen materials such as mailbox keys and checks in online forums, increasing the financial rewards," as well as "egg each other on by posting photos and videos of their exploits on social media apps and dark web sites."
Here's what's happening
- Thieves are simply going to your home mailbox and taking the mail you left for the post office to pick up, rummaging through it looking for checks.
- Others simply go to the blue boxes (with the keys they stole from a postal worker), empty the boxes and get the checks that many of us send to utility companies or gifts for loved ones.
Next? Here's how the director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group's David Maimon describes how the crooks work:
Once they have the checks in hand, the criminals do a bit of old-school editing before selling them."…"They take the check. They take a screenshot just in case. And then they use nail polish remover to remove the payee, as well as the amount that the victim essentially wrote on a check…"
"Once they have that, they take another picture and then they upload the picture with the clean check on several darknets, as well as encrypted communication platforms that facilitate the online fraud underground markets."
Once sold, a lot of bad things can happen. The checks can be altered again to fraudulent amounts, resulting in losses of thousands of dollars. Information gleaned from the checks include the name and address information criminals can use as part of identity theft. They can open bank accounts and apply for loans on behalf of the victim. Or use the information to create fake IDs, like a driver's license or passport.
What to do
With over 425 million mail pieces every single day, there's only so much the USPS can do to safeguard the mail. Here's what you can do to avoid it:
- Take advantage of electronic payment methods. Use an online bill-pay service, such as Tower's Bill Payment. Or make payments via a service like Venmo or PayPal.
- Safer than cash, a Visa® gift card is the perfect present to give rather than sending a check. Gift cards are available in all Tower branches and can be purchased in any dollar amount from $10 to $500.
- If you must write a check, use a gel ink pen, as the ink is more difficult for thieves to remove than ball point-pen ink.
- Did you get a message about insufficient funds from your bank when you thought the money was there? Or notice a payment made from your account to someone or a business you don't know? Review cleared check images in your digital banking accounts to make sure that they have not been altered or endorsed by someone other than the payee. If something looks wrong, contact your bank/credit union immediately so the cleared check can be reversed/refused and the funds placed back in your account. It's always a smart idea to monitor your accounts daily using digital banking so you can get help and stop the damage quickly.
- Never leave delivered mail in your mailbox overnight.
- Hold your mail if you're going on vacation. Have it held at the post office or picked up by a friend or neighbor.
- Do not put mail in the big, blue collection boxes on the street. The highest rate of mail theft locally is from these boxes and at boxes in other public places.
- Do not leave outgoing mail in your mailbox. That little red flag is an open opportunity for thieves. Take outgoing mail to your office, or mail it indoors at a post office, or mailing outlet store.
- Keep your mailbox visible. Trim shrubbery around your mailbox, eliminating hiding places for thieves.
- Get a post office box (a rented lockable mailbox at the post office). If theft is a concern, the cost of renting a post office box may be worth the investment, since thefts from such boxes are rare, according to postal authorities.
If you've been a victim of stolen mail check fraud, in addition to contacting your financial institutions, make sure to report it to the USPS hotline: 1-800-275-8777 or 1-800-ASK-USPS.
Resources: Galvanized Media. National Public Radio