Mailing checks can be a risky business

Roseville, Calif.- Writing checks and mailing them has declined in recent years as the option to pay bills online has become more common.

Check fraud and theft, however, has been growing- doubling over the last year. There are two distinct categories of crimes involving checks:

Check theft

Typically, check theft occurs when the scammer is able to intercept your check before it reaches the US Postal Service or before is actually received by the recipient. There has been a rise in theft from both personal mailboxes and USPS blue maildrops by thieves breaking the locks and stealing mail. Recently a mail carrier was even robbed at gunpoint to get the master key that unlocks all USPS mailboxes.

Once in possession of a check, the scammers can ‘wash’ the check, a process to remove your writing and replace it with theirs. A $20 check can quickly become $2000. They will occasionally set up an account with a bank to receive the funds or use a check cashing business. After the bank clears the check in a few days, the scammer has access to and withdraws the money. It usually takes the bank, or you, several more days to identify the fraud, by which time the money is long gone, and you are sometimes left owing to the bank.

Check scamming

This involves a scammer conning you into sending them a check and/or sending you a fake one. Scams include:

  • Emails telling you that you’ve won a prize. Frequently you are asked to send a check for a small amount just to cover “taxes and shipping costs”. They cash your check and disappear. They may also ‘wash’ your check, turning it into a larger amount.
  • People buying an item from you online may ‘accidentally’ overpay you and ask you to return the overpayment as a check. Once you do so, they can again “wash” your check inserting a much larger amount. Often, the check they sent you will also be returned as fraudulent.
  • Scammers posing as businesses send you their fake check, urgently asking you to buy gift cards and send them the pin numbers. The moment you do so, they cash the cards out. You find out later that the check was not real. Sometimes cryptocurrency or wire transfers are used instead of gift cards in their scam.

How to avoid check scams:

1) Make payments electronically wherever possible.
2) If you have to mail a check, take it to a Post Office and drop it in the lobby mail slot.
3) Monitor you checking transactions frequently online and inform your bank immediately of suspicious activity.
4) Do not respond to personal shopper or “you have won” emails or texts.
5) Do not write checks for the balance of overpayments.

In all cases of suspected fraud, notify your bank and file a report with the Postal Inspection Service where mail theft is suspected.

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