According to the National Check Fraud Center, check washing has an $815 million annual price tag to U.S. consumers. Unfortunately, instances of check washing often go unnoticed until it’s too late to undo the damage.

Here’s what you need to know about these scams and how to protect yourself:

What is check-washing?

In a check-washing scam, a scammer steals checks from the mail, changes the payee name and/or the dollar amount, then deposits them into their own accounts.

The scammer pulls off this off by stealing mail from private and public mailboxes. After stealing a pile of envelopes, the scammers keep those appearing to contain checks, and then discard or return the rest. With checks in hand, they’ll erase the ink on the stolen checks, and then rewrite the numbers and/or the payee.

Finally, they’ll deposit the checks into their own accounts.

Scammers sometimes take the scheme one step further by using the checking account details found on the check to commit further crimes against the check-writer. This can include producing counterfeit checks in the victim’s name, as well as fake IDs, driver’s licenses, and passports. The victim may only learn about these crimes when they begin receiving overdraft notices or are informed that their ID is no longer valid.

Check washing is a particularly dangerous scam since victims may not learn of its occurrence for weeks, or even months. They may only discover the ruse when they review their monthly checking account statement and discover that the check amount and/or payee has been altered. Or, it may only happen when the intended recipient reaches out to let the check-writer know they still haven’t to receive the check. The scam’s discovery is more likely to be delayed when the scammers have not modified any information on the check and have simply stolen and deposited a check made out to “cash.”

How to prevent check-washing

Law enforcement agencies on a local and federal level, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI, have task forces created to help stop check washing. They offer the following tips for keeping your checks and your information safe:

  • Consider using Jovia’s online and mobile banking services, like peer-to-peer payments, such as Zelle® or Bill Pay as a replacement for mailing checks.
  • When writing checks, use black ink, preferably gel. The ink found in blue ballpoint pens can be easily removed. When writing a check, do not leave gaps or large spaces in between words and numbers.
  • Don’t raise your mailbox flag when there are bill payments inside. Hand this mail directly to your carrier or mail it from the post office.
  • Retrieve your mail daily and never leave the mailbox full overnight. If you are traveling, you can arrange for the post office to hold your mail for up a minimum of 3 days and a maximum of 30 days. Alternatively, have a friend retrieve your mail, so it doesn’t pile up.
  • Use Jovia’s account alerts to be notified via text, push notification, or email of account activity for each account, from large withdrawal/deposit notifications to low and high balance alerts. Learn how to set up account alerts here.
  • Shred or burn all canceled checks, checks deposited through your mobile app, credit card statements, and bills after 30 days.
  • Review your checking account activity frequently. Ensure all checks have cleared for the correct amount and to the correct payee. You can access this information through Jovia’s online and mobile banking.
  • Store your checks in a secure place within your home.
  • Write out your checks to a specific person or business. Avoid making checks out to “cash.”

Check washing can wreak havoc on a victim’s finances before they even know it’s occurred. Follow the tips outlined here to keep your checks safe. And remember to never accept a check from someone who you do not know or trust.

Zelle and the Zelle related marks are wholly owned by Early Warning Services, LLC and are used herein under license.