Check Washing: How to Protect Yourself From Fraud | Ion Bank

Fraud has seen significant growth in recent years. Nearly 2.8 million consumers filed a fraud report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2021, the highest number on record. One common scam that affects many individuals and businesses is check fraud.

The National Check Fraud Center estimates “check washing” costs $815 million in the United States each year. Check washing involves erasing the ink on a check with chemicals like acetone or bleach. The scammer then reroutes the check to their own account by changing the payee and potentially, the amount. How can you avoid falling victim to check washing?

How Check Washing Happens

Mail snatchers are targeting personal mailboxes and communal postal boxes. “Fishing” is one technique to steal mail from USPS collection boxes. A string attached to a sticky substance is dropped through the pull-down door to “fish out” envelopes. To help prevent mail theft and check washing, the US Postal Service is phasing out collection boxes with big, fold-down doors for new boxes with smaller openings.

Once a check has been stolen, chemicals from common household cleaners are used to erase the details and the check is “reused” to pay themselves. After the money has been rerouted to the fraudster’s account, a victim’s personal information can also be used to produce counterfeit checks, fake IDs, Driver’s Licenses and passports. Postal Inspectors recover more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks and money orders each year!

Tips to Prevent Check Washing

Unfortunately, many people are unaware they have been victimized until they start receiving debt notices. If the check thief only changed the payee, your bank statement will show the proper amount cleared and you could easily overlook the recipient. Weeks or months could go by until you realize the checks have been stolen and your money may not be recovered. 

Local and federal authorities, including the US Postal Inspection Service and FBI, have task forces to help stop check washing. They offer the following advice to keep your checks safe:

  • Do not raise your mailbox flag with bills inside. It’s best to hand your mail directly to a carrier or take it to the post office.
  • Retrieve your mail frequently and never leave the mailbox full overnight.
  • If you’re going away, the post office can hold your mail for up to 30 days.
  • Order new checks to pick up at the bank, rather than having them shipped to you.
  • Use envelopes with security tinting, which are impossible to see through.
  • Shred or burn all canceled checks, credit card statements and bills.
  • Ensure all checks have cleared for the correct amount and to the correct payee.
  • Use mobile and online banking services as a replacement for checks.

One important step you can take beforeyou’ve even written a check is to use black gel ink. The ink found in a blue ballpoint pen is easily removed with acetone but gel pens with black ink resist chemical stripping and contain pigments that permeate the fibers of the check.

To learn more about protecting your personal information, visit our online Security Center.

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