Dirty laundry: Protecting your checks from theft

Dirty laundry: Protecting your checks from theft

By Joseph Collum

Paper checks are still an important method of making payments. Checks provide customers with an easy and convenient tool to make payments when they prefer not to use digital technology. They also serve as an alternative payment tool when technology is not an option. Unfortunately, paper checks are also subject to theft and fraud. We’ve seen a significant increase in the reports of check theft in recent years.

Thieves are stealing mail from home mailboxes. Even locked postal “blue boxes” are not immune to theft. After stealing mail, fraudsters find and alter checks, known as “check washing” by using chemicals to remove ink from the payee line and the dollar amount of the check. They then change the value of the check to a much larger amount and add their own name as payee while preserving the legitimate signature on the check.

Often, the thief will use the name of a “mule” as the payee. A mule is an individual the fraudster uses and then pays to negotiate the check on his or her behalf.

I heard a recent story of someone who mailed their monthly payment via check to their local power company. The amount was just above $100. The individual used a post office box close to their home to send the payment. A week or so later, the check cleared their account in the amount of $4,000. The check was made out to a complete stranger.

A thief accessed the mailbox, stole the mail, washed the check for their own benefit and was able to cash the check at a national bank. In this situation, the victim was able to get their money back, but not before incurring stress, worry and the hassle of closing their account and opening a new one.

Potentially avoid this situation by following a few best practices.

Visit the post office

If you write and mail checks, take your mail with checks inside a post office location. Do not use your own mailbox to send checks. Avoid the blue boxes for mail drop. Even those located at your lo- cal post office can be vulnerable to theft.

Review transactions

Log on daily via your bank’s digital banking platform to review transactions. It’s a fast, secure and easy way to verify the items posted to your account. Most banks make check images available online. Take a moment to click on the image and review it to ensure it is legitimate. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, call, message or visit your bank immediately.

Enroll online

Enroll in your bank’s bill payment service, which is generally free. The bank will remit payments on your behalf. And you will save the cost of postage as well.

Put it in ink

Use pens that make it more difficult to wash checks. Generally, a gel pen is best. A simple internet search for “best anti-fraud pens for checks” will point you in the right direction.

While these steps may not eliminate the possibility of fraud, they will greatly reduce the chances you could be affected by this ongoing issue.

The writer is the executive vice president and director of branch and business banking for Burke & Herbert Bank.