Although money expert Clark Howard wants you to receive paper statements for particular bills, he doesn’t want you to mail checks to pay for them. The reason is because of a scam called “check washing.”
“You need to know that there’s a real threat to your identity if you mail payments by check.”
Do You Mail Checks? Read This
The U.S. Postal Service has a warning on its website about mail theft and how thieves are targeting mailboxes.
“And one of the principal things they’re looking for – and this is something a lot of people will do at Christmastime – is they’re looking for checks,” Clark says. “Maybe you’re sending a check to a loved one at Christmas, or maybe you’re paying a bill and you’re enclosing a paper check.”
Check scams make the headlines ever so often, but this particular one involves crooks taking advantage of something you may not have even given a second thought to: the mailboxes just outside the post office.
According to the Associated Press, banks issued about 680,000 reports of check fraud last year.
More recently, TV station WSOC-TV reported that a Charlotte man mailed two checks for $50 each only for a crook to change who they were made out to and the amounts to $2,000 and $3,000.
In both of those cases and countless others, the crime involved “washing” checks.
What Is Check Washing and How Does It Work?
“Washing” a check involves “changing the payee names and often the dollar amounts on checks and fraudulently depositing them,” according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. “Occasionally, these checks are stolen from mailboxes and washed in chemicals to remove the ink. Some scammers will even use copiers or scanners to print fake copies of a check.”
Clark says criminals are breaking into post boxes, and in some cases, even robbing postal workers so that they can get the keys to the boxes.
Once they have the keys, “They can get the mail out of the box, open up mail that looks like it’s a payment with a check,” Clark says. “Then they ‘wash’ that check, make themselves the payee, change the amount and steal money from you.”
“In the worst case, they have those checks printed at one of those check-printing services, and they’ve got a box of your checks they can have a field day writing. It’s an ugly, ugly crime.”
Check-Washing: How To Avoid This Check Mailing Scam
Because of the prevalence of check washing and other check fraud, Clark wants you to be safe when paying your bills.
Don’t Put a Check in the Post Office’s Blue Mailboxes
“The Postal Service, in its own alert about this, says if you are mailing something with a check – a bill payment or anything like that – don’t use the outside mailboxes,” Clark says. “Go inside the post office and drop it in their secure box.”
Pay Electronically if You Can
“Pay your bills electronically, above all,” Clark says. “That’s the ultimate lesson of this because the check-writing system is not secure and not safe.”
Clark says that he prefers that you use the bill-paying service of your bank, credit union or brokerage firm, which should all be free. “I don’t know anybody that charges for bill pay anymore,” he says.
Clark says the way to protect yourself against check washing is to pay electronically if you can. Of course, he realizes that everyone is not able to do that.
“I have to mention that if you’re paying a particularly small business, they may not be set up to receive payments electronically. And you may face the same danger: that the bill paying service prints out a check and mails it. … But the good news is usually they’re not dropping that mail at a blue box,” he says. “They’re going to a postal center and dropping off in bulk the payments they’re sending out, so they’re less likely to be intercepted.”
Want more ways to protect yourself? Read our in-depth guide on how to prevent, report and repair identity theft.