Police, Postal Inspectors Probe Check Washing

SANATOGA PA – As with so many other trends, everything old can become new again. Check-washing, for example, Lower Pottsgrove Police Chief Michael Foltz reports.

Check-washing is a crime that surfaced in the mid-1980s, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. It’s a method of altering personal or business bank checks, often stolen from mailboxes, by using a chemical solvent or cleaning agent to erase hand-written inked information like payee names, signatures, or dollar amounts.

A washed check is essentially a blank check, on which criminals can then fill in the blanks themselves and cash the forged document or deposit it into another account.

Now, about 40 years after the trend began, Foltz on Monday (March 2, 2020) told the Lower Pottsgrove Board of Commissioners that township police department detectives are working with the United States Postal Inspection Service to investigate “several fraudulent activities involving mail fraud and check washing.” The chief did not offer details on the alleged crimes or the detectives’ progress.

In this age of tap-and-go credit cards, digital transactions, and Internet bill-paying, who uses checks? That could be anyone who’s not online, or who lacks trust in online transactions, or who is occasionally required to write a check for payment of a bill or debt.

Foltz admitted to commissioners he was a little surprised to see “check-washing makes a return,” but even old-school crime has proven to be effective for criminals. The elderly are prime targets. News reports announced the discovery of check-washing incidents in New Rochelle NY as recently as last December (2019); in Westchester NY and Wellesley MA during November; and in Bronx NY during October.

In fact, according to postal inspectors, the crime accounts for a portion of the more than $1 billion they recover in counterfeit checks and money orders every year.

Postal inspectors and other law enforcement and financial sources offer several tips to avoid being a victim of check-washing:

  • When writing a check, use a gel pen. Experts say gel pens with black ink provide the best protection against check washing, because gel ink resists chemical stripping. It also contains pigments that permeate the fibers of the check itself.
  • Shred or burn canceled checks. If you must save them, ensure canceled checks are kept in a secured place, like a lockbox or safe.
  • Avoid mailing from home. Don’t put bills, particularly those paid by check, in a residential mailbox, the National Check Fraud Center warns. The red flag sticking up from a mailbox “is like an invitation to a thief.”
  • Never send cash through the mail. It’s a costly alternative, because it’s likely to vanish without a trace.
  • Review bank statements for payments made by check immediately after receiving them. If you fail to report check fraud within 30 days of receiving a monthly statement, some banks are not required to reimburse your loss.
  • Retrieve mail frequently. Never let mail sit in a mailbox overnight, because it’s a prime target for thieves. If you’re going on vacation, place a hold-mail order with the post office, or have mail picked up by a friend or neighbor.
  • Drop off mail before final pickups. The best time to put out-going mail into the U.S. Postal Service’s blue collection boxes, it says, is before the last pickup of the day. Want more safety? Drop out-going mail off directly at a post office.

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