It's an old criminal hack, but it's back with a vengeance: check washing. It's part of a larger trend in efforts to steal your money if you use checks. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has sent out an alert that check fraud schemes targeting the U.S. Post Office have seen a notable uptick. Last year, reports of check fraud filed by banks nearly doubled to 680,000, from 350,000 in 2021. So why the sudden surge? Blame COVID-19 and social media.
Be Aware: Scammers Using A New Technique To Steal Peoples Checks!♬ original sound - Buca Nero
Since the government started sending out pandemic relief checks, there was an increased interest among bad guys in getting that money out of your mailbox and into criminals' coffers. But the fact that many were able to swap tips on how to scam on social media (or even sell washed checks), with Telegram being an app beloved by criminals due to its ability for users to stay anonymous, social media had made stealing — and washing — checks an easy con.
So what is check washing? Exactly what it sounds like. Once criminals get a hold of a check (or get a master key to break into mailboxes and get mail that way), they wash it using a solvent (sometimes just acetone nail polish remover) and fill in the amount, fake your signature, and cash it, usually leaving your checking account empty.
What can you do to prevent this? Luckily, there are plenty of suggestions.
- Pay bills online. You won't have to send a check through the mail and you may even get an incentive to stop sending money that way. But if you have to mail a check (or are just too stubborn to get with the times), walk into the post office and hand your envelope to a postal worker or drop it in the lobby mail slot. And if you use the slot, make sure it's during business hours so it doesn't sit overnight.
- Check your bank account often. Being aware of fraud means you can keep track of any suspicious activity and act fast if you see it.
- When expecting a check, use Informed Delivery. This free service from USPS means you can get a preview of mail before it arrives.
- Get fraud protection. Though not every service is equal, consider a service that will protect your assets against fraud. Lifelock, Aura, and even a service from Costco might entail a monthly fee but could be money well spent if you're targeted.
- If your check has been stolen, take action. Contact your bank, but also file a report with the United States Postal Inspection Service and your local police department.
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