If you still mail checks to pay for your bills and other things, money expert Clark Howard has a warning that could save both your money and your identity from being stolen.
“You need to know that there’s a real threat to your identity if you mail payments by check,” he says.
Do You Mail Checks? Read This
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: the mailboxes just outside the post office.
In 2020, a Chicago woman had her bank account wiped out when she put a check in the mail outside a post office.
More recently, an Illinois man mailed two checks, using the box outside his local post office. The combined total of the checks? About $40. Days later, his bank told him that a crook had altered those two checks by more than $8,000 apiece.
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, then they ‘wash’ that check, make themselves the payee, change the amount and steal money from you,” Clark says.
Because of the prevalence of check washing and other check fraud, Clark wants you to be safe when paying your bills.
“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.”