by Alpana Bakshi

Even in an age of online payments, check fraud still runs rampant today and, according to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the Treasury Department, banks reported nearly 680,000 cases of check fraud just last year – double the amount from the year before. One type of check fraud that is on the rise is check washing, where criminals use chemicals like nail polish remover to “wash’ the ink away from a signed check and write in what they wish to, altering the dollar amount and “payee” or recipient before depositing the altered check into their own account.

Check washing and fraud has evolved in recent years from small time crooks lifting personal checks from home mailboxes to more elaborate measures of even stealing business and government checks, in bulk from postal collection boxes, robbing postal workers, and more. Here are some tips on how to avoid check fraud and what to do if it happens to you.

How Do I Protect Myself from Check Fraud?

*Avoid mailing checks: The best way to avoid your checks being stolen is to not mail physical checks. Instead, try paying online when you can. If you must write a check, do so in black indelible ink.

*Take precautions with mailing checks: If you absolutely need to send a written check, go into a post office and drop it off in the lobby mail slot. It’s risky to use the blue boxes, but if you must, time your drop off so that it’s right before the day’s last scheduled pickup (which should be listed on the blue box) so that your check isn’t sitting in it for a long time or overnight.

Do NOT put checks in your home mailbox for pickup. Raising the red flag will signal to both the postal worker and potential thieves that there’s something inside, and anybody can open a mailbox up.

*Be proactive about mail that you are expecting: If you are expecting important mail, take advantage of the Postal Service’s free Informed Delivery service. This will show you a preview of mail expected to arrive soon and allow you to track certain deliveries.

If you know that you’ll be away, don’t let mail pile up in your mailbox. Arrange for someone to collect your mail or utilize the USPS Hold Mail Service by going online and requesting the post office to hold it until you get back.

*Regularly check your bank account: Regularly and frequently check your bank activity and statements for suspicious activity. Doing so will make it easier and quicker for you to catch and correct any fraudulent activity. Keep your duplicate checks (if you have a check book with carbon paper) and keep a record of checks you’ve written. Review your bank activity and statements to confirm when a check has been cashed and check the amount and recipient against your records for any discrepancies.

What Do I Do If I’m a Victim of Check Fraud?

*Report it: As soon as you think something is wrong, file a report with the Postal Inspection Service, your local police department, and your bank.

*Remember that you are not liable for stolen funds: Immediately let your bank know. It is the job of banks to screen and detect fraudulent or altered checks. The responsibility lies with the banks if they accept a forged check, not you. It’s important to regularly review your account activity, if it’s been more than a couple months your bank might give you trouble and try to disavow responsibility. Depending on the bank and the state, customers usually have between 30-60 days to from the date of their last statement to report fraudulent charges and checks.

The refund process can vary in time and can be quite lengthy as banks investigate reported fraud and decide which institution is liable. Being timely with your report is critical and will help with the return of your funds as soon as possible. Customers may request a provisional credit while the inquiry proceeds according to Paul Benda of the American Bankers Association. Advocate for yourself. Be sure to check in with your financial institution on the progress of your case and the return of your money. Remember that you are not liable for the cashing of a forged, the banks are.

Helpful Links

Informed Delivery Service: https://www.usps.com/manage/informed-delivery.htm

Hold Mail Service: https://www.usps.com/manage/hold-mail.htm

Report Mail Theft: https://www.uspis.gov/report

Works Referenced:

Carrns, Ann. “Check Fraud Is on the Rise. Here’s What You Can Do to Prevent It.” The New York Times, March 10, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/10/your-money/check-fraud-protection.html

Murphy, Sean. “Still writing checks? You might want to reconsider as check fraud skyrockets.” The Boston Globe, April 16, 2023. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/04/16/business/still-writing-checks-you-might-want-reconsider-check-fraud-skyrockets/