What Is Check Washing & Why Should You Care?

The warnings are clear: Stop putting checks in the mail. Every time you do, you increase the risk of becoming a victim of what is known as "check washing."


The U.S. Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), American Bankers AssociationBetter Business BureauAARP, and United States Postal Service are all sounding the alarm about check washing, a crime associated with mail theft, check fraud, and potentially also identity theft. The scam is making criminals $815 million richer each year, by some estimates.


How Check Washing Works

A check washing scam involves stealing checks out of the mail, then altering the payee and check amount to illegally obtain money.


The process works something like this:

  1. A check is stolen. This occurs by tampering with a mail collection box, such as the outgoing mail slot in your community or the standalone USPS collection boxes outside post offices. Thieves may fish items out of a collection box using string and something sticky – or they may rob a postal worker of the master key needed to open collection boxes and individual mailboxes, in building lobbies or on the street, for an entire zip code area.
  2. Ink is removed & areas of the check are altered. Common household solvents – such as paint thinner, nail polish remover, bleach, hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, or other chemicals – are used to remove ink in the payee and amount areas of the check. The check is rewritten, often for significantly more than the original check.
  3. The check is fraudulently deposited/cashed. The altered check – still with its original signature – may be deposited at a bank, ATM, via mobile deposit, or taken to a check cashing store.


In some cases, thieves go on to commit identity theft by using personal info found on the check, including the bank account number and bank routing number, to take out loans or open other accounts in the checkwriter’s name – or create phony driver’s licenses.


The illegally altered checks may also be copied and sold on the dark web, leading to continuing instances of check fraud and identity theft.

Avoid Becoming a Victim of Check Fraud

Check washing is not a new crime, but it is making a serious comeback. It’s fairly low-tech, making it relatively easy for anyone to carry out, and on a grand scale. There were 680,000 cases of check fraud reported by banks in 2022 – nearly double the amount from the previous year. Anyone can be targeted for check washing, although scammers tend to focus on businesses, which regularly pay larger amounts by check.


Here’s how to avoid becoming a victim of check-washing scammers:

  • Don’t send checks through the mail. Instead, pay bills online whenever possible – just make sure you see “https:” at the beginning of the website address and you’re on a trusted, password-protected Wi-Fi network. 
  • If you need to mail a check:
  • Take the envelope into the post office yourself and hand it to a teller or drop it into the inside mail slot.
  • Use black gel ink, which is less susceptible to the washing process. These pens may be advertised as “indelible,” “check-safe,” or “fraud-resistant.” 
  • Retrieve your mail promptly. The longer a check in the mail waiting to be picked up, the greater the risk it may be stolen. If you’re going away, put a hold on your mail until you return.
  • Add security to your mailbox. Highly visible cameras around your incoming/outgoing mail receptacle may act as a deterrent.
  • Check your bank statements. Prompt, regular review of your bank account activity can alert you to unusual activity or altered checks being cashed.  
  • Shred sensitive documents. This includes old checks, as well as all those preapproved credit notices and applications you get in the mail.


What to Do When It Happens to You

The good news is your bank will likely reimburse you for the lost funds – but it could take a while and may depend on how quickly you report the problem to them. As soon as you discover someone has stolen and altered a check you wrote, here’s what to do:


  • Tell your bank as soon as possible! In most cases, you have 30 days from the date of your most recent bank statement to inform the bank of potential check fraud. 
  • Freeze your credit bureau accounts. This will help prevent new loans/credit accounts being opened in your name. Be sure you activate a freeze for all three credit bureaus: EquifaxExperian, and TransUnion.
  • File a report with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. You can do this by calling (877) 876-2444 or submitting an online report.
  • File a report with your local police department.


Your Bill-Paying Alternatives to Checks

If you’re determined to avoid using checks, you’re in luck! There are a number of bill-paying alternatives available to you, including:


  • Cash (for in-person payments)
  • Zelle, Venmo, CashApp, and other peer-to-peer (P2P) payment apps
  • Credit cards
  • Digital wallet in your phone (ApplePay, Google Wallet, or Samsung Pay)
  • Your banking account’s “bill pay” feature
  • Direct bank transfers, such as ACH/direct deposit
  • Wire transfers (for larger sums)


Stay Ahead of Check Fraud & Scammers

One of the most important first steps to prevent fraud is to educate yourself on the prevalent scams and how to protect yourself against them. Right now, it’s the rise in check washing – when a check you put in the mail is stolen, altered, and much more money is taken out of your bank account than you expected.


At Florida Peninsula Insurance Company, it is our aim to help you protect everything you’ve worked so hard for, whether it’s money in your checking account, your homecondo, or all your belongings if you’re a renter.


In addition, if you’re interested in identity theft protection, we offer coverage to help you get back on your feet after you’re a victim of identity theft. It’s more affordable than you think, but you’ll need to purchase it now, before identity theft happens to you.


For more information about all the insurance products we offer at Florida Peninsula Insurance Company, contact your agent now or get a quote online. 

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