Most of the scams that bedevil consumers are high-tech and sophisticated – things like email phishing scams. But lately, scammers have borrowed a page from an earlier generation of criminals.
You might call it a “fishing” scam because the bad guys are actually “fishing” letters out of mailboxes in the search of letters containing checks. David Maimon, associate professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University, has documented what he says is a surge in this crime in recent months.
“Criminals are increasingly targeting U.S. Postal Service and personal mailboxes to pilfer filled-out checks and sell them over the internet using social media platforms,” Maimon wrote in his blog.
“The buyers then alter the payee and amount listed on the checks to rob victims’ bank accounts of thousands of dollars. While the banks themselves typically bear the financial burden and reimburse targeted accounts, criminals can use the checks to steal victims’ identities, which can have severe consequences.”
There are other consequences for the consumer who mailed the check. For starters, a bill won’t be paid on time and that could have credit score ramifications. When the fraud is discovered, the consumer must deal with their bank to straighten it out.
Money in the bank
According to Maimon, once a thief has a check it is literally money in the bank. The scammer uses nail polish remover to erase the name and amount on the check and then sells it on the dark web, bringing about $250 per check.
Other criminals will buy the altered checks because once they are filled out with a new amount and the buyer’s name they are 100% “legitimate” and guaranteed to clear. By the time the fraud is discovered the thief has their money and the bank takes the loss.
Consumers can help reduce this kind of fraud by using online banking whenever possible. If payment must be made with a check, always mail it at a post office. Avoid home mailboxes and U.S. Postal Service mailboxes on street corners.
Another way to help prevent “check washing” is to always fill out checks with gel pens. The pens’ indelible ink can’t be “washed” with nail polish remover.
While thieves have been stealing bank checks since they were invented in the 18th century, Maimon says the internet gave it a boost in the 1990s, making it easier for thieves to find buyers.