November 15, 2023 · Savings, Security
Are You Missing Money in Your Account? Maybe Your Checks Were Stolen and Washed
Have you sent a check to someone, and the check was cashed, the funds withdrawn from your account, but then payee claims they never received or cashed the check? Did this happen more than once? Was the check cashed for more—or much more—than the amount it had originally been made out for?
Disappearing but cashed checks could mean you’re the victim of a veteran, but evergreen, type of fraud known as “check washing”. Check washing is when fraudsters first steal paper checks from personal (or even U.S. Postal Service office) mailboxes and then soak them in ink-removing chemicals to erase the information handwritten on the check, such as the payee name, dollar amount and date, creating blank spaces for the scammer to write in whatever new information they want. The crook can then make the check out to either themselves, someone else, or even to a fake alias and then they usually increase the payment amount significantly, even up to thousands of dollars; so, a legitimate check that was originally written for $50 can become a $5,000 bogus check. Check washing is not the same thing as being paid with a fake check.
While paper check usage has been transitioning to various forms of digital payments, paper checks are still widely used and susceptible to theft and fraud. The U.S. government’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes in and tracks reports from consumers about problems they experience in the marketplace, including complaints of many types of fraud. According to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2022, the fraud category of “Foreign Money Offers and Fake Check Scams” ranked number 18 in the top 20 categories of reported fraud last year.
The primary—but not only—U.S. government law enforcement organization for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is the U.S. Postal Inspection Service® (USPIS); which provides it with law enforcement, crime prevention and security services. The USPIS and other organizations have the following recommendations for helping to make your mail more secure.
Actions that could help keep your U.S. postal mail more secure
The USPIS and other organizations have recommendations for helping to make your mail more secure:
- Pay your bills online instead of mailing checks. Online banking services are usually encrypted for security and enable faster payment than a paper check, and such payments are unlikely to be intercepted by a crook.
- If they offer this service, go online to have your bank or credit union mail checks for you. The check will be issued from a banking facility and go into a large volume of business mail, making it harder to identify and steal a check.
- Put mail with checks in U.S. Postal Service collection boxes near to the box’s specified pickup time or take them into the post office and give them directly to a postal service employee.
- When using your home mailbox, don’t raise the attached red signal flag that tells postal carriers that a pick-up is needed; the flag is also a signal to fraudsters that you have outgoing mail.
- Don’t leave incoming or outgoing mail sitting in your mailbox, pick it up promptly and try to put in the mailbox close to when the postal carrier usually arrives..
- Sign up for the U.S. Postal Service’s Informed Delivery free service. With Informed Delivery, the USPS will email you images every morning of the mail that is coming to your home later that day. You will know what’s coming and whether any pieces are missing.
- If you’re going to be away from home for several days, use the USPS Hold Mail service to temporarily halt mail delivery. You can also have a trusted neighbor collect your mail every day.
- Monitor your financial accounts daily, weekly and monthly for suspicious activity and report anything unusual immediately to your bank, credit union, credit card company and any other relevant company or individual.
- Write checks with a pen with black or blue gel ink that may be more difficult to be erased or washed out.
- When making out a check, write out the amount to be paid in words so that they fill up the entire line and have the amount written in numbers fill the box on the right of the check. Leaving no space gaps makes it harder to alter the check without washing it.
If you think your checks have been stolen and washed, take quick action
- Report missing checks as soon as you become aware of them.
- Notify your credit union, bank or other financial institution and try to have specific details—the check numbers, the date they were cashed, the amount of money involved and who the checks were originally going to.
- Report suspected check fraud to the USPIS at uspis.gov/report, call at 877-876-2455, or mail a complaint to:
Criminal Investigations Service Center
Attn: Mail Fraud
433 West Harrison Street, Room 3255
Chicago, Il 60699-3255
- You may contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at 1-877-FTC-HELP, 1-877-ID-THEFT, or online at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. The FTC also has a site that can help potential or actual scam victims, Money Matters, to review. It also has a video on Why Report Fraud to learn how your report can help stop scammers.
- The U.S. Department of Justice has a list of government agencies where different types of fraud can be reported.
- Fraud can also be reported to state and local government authorities; for some states, fraudulent activities are reported to state’s attorney general’s office.
- You also can contact your local consumer protection office for assistance.
Would you like to check out more ways to try to avoid scams and losing money?
More information on protecting yourself and your accounts—along with financial guidance—is available from free Delta Community Financial Education Center webinars on many different money-related topics. You can visit the Financial Education Center's Events & Seminars page to register for its no-cost, on-demand webinars.
- Avoid fake check scams.
- Learn check-writing tips.
- How to hang up on imposter scams, part 1.
- How to hang up on imposter scams, part 2.
- Did you know that only scammers get paid with gift cards or cryptocurrency?
- Think for a minute, and then don’t click 'unsubscribe' from spam emails and texts—managing spam.
- Learn how to make your mobile and online payments safer.
- How to protect yourself online while working or learning from home.
- Why to question your security questions.
- How to secure your home network.
- You should know how to tell if someone’s stolen your identity and how to prevent it.
- How to get a stronger password and use a password manager.
- Be on the lookout for phishing, smishing and vishing attacks.
- Be vigilant for spoofed phone calls.
- Harden your email account against an attack.