Still Writing Checks? Watch Out: Crooks Are Stealing Them From Mailboxes

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In today’s digitally connected world, fewer people are writing checks.

But those of us who still use paper checks should be aware of an alarming new trend: There’s been a huge spike in the number of checks being stolen from mailboxes.

Check fraud linked to mail theft is on the rise, according to a recent alert from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Here’s how it happens:

  • Criminals swipe checks that were left in people’s residential mailboxes or in clusters of mailboxes in apartment complexes or commercial buildings. Or they target the U.S. Postal Service’s blue collection mailboxes, either opening them with stolen keys or fishing out mail using a string and an object that’s sticky or covered in glue.
  • They use nail polish remover or bleach to remove the ink that was written on the check. They erase the name of the “payee” and the dollar amount the check was written for. (They leave the signature.)
  • The crooks rewrite the check for more money, and they cash the check at a bank or check-cashing business.

This practice is called “check washing,” and AARP recently warned its 38 million members about it. (Older people are more likely to use paper checks, according to a number of studies and surveys.)

“Check washing is soaring because criminals who stole government stimulus checks and unemployment checks during the pandemic are now looking for new sources of income,” AARP said.

Pro Tip

Never written a check? Check out our step-by-step guide, and we’ll walk you through the process.

Check Fraud Practically Doubled in a Year

Why are the feds and AARP up in arms over this? How much worse has the problem gotten? The numbers are mind-boggling.

Banks’ reports of check fraud nearly doubled from 350,000 in 2021 to 680,000 in 2022, according to the Treasury Department.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service reports that it received nearly 300,000 complaints of mail theft from March 2020 to February 2021 — a whopping 160% increase compared with the previous year.

Pro Tip

Don’t get scammed: What you need to know about scams on the rise.

What Can You Do About It?

With this huge surge in check theft and check washing, how can you protect yourself and your bank account? AARP offers six tips:

  1. Pay your bills online — as many bills as you can. If you’re worried about check fraud, it might be time to make the switch to paying digitally.
  2. Mail your checks at your local post office — preferably inside the post office. Don’t leave envelopes containing checks in your own mailbox or in Postal Service collection boxes after the last pickup time. Definitely don’t put a check in your mailbox and lift the little flag to alert your mail carrier that there’s mail inside.
  3. Don’t let delivered mail sit in your mailbox. Collect your mail every day, preferably as soon as it’s delivered.
  4. Instead of writing checks with a ballpoint pen, use a pen with gel ink. Your writing will be harder to remove.
  5. Monitor your bank account closely. Look for records of any checks you’ve written, and make sure the amounts are correct.
  6. Report any fraud to your bank as soon as possible. Banks are typically required to replace money that gets stolen through check fraud — but only if the fraud gets reported within 30 to 60 days of your bank statement, depending on what state you’re in.

You can also report mail theft to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the local police.

Here’s another tip, courtesy of a New York Times interview with an AARP fraud expert:

If you’re expecting a check in the mail (or some other important mail), sign up for the Postal Service’s free Informed Delivery service, which emails you photos of mail that’s about to arrive in your mailbox. That way you’ll know when it’s coming.

The upshot: Fewer people are writing checks these days, but more checks are being stolen. If you’re still writing checks — and no judgment here if you are — it’s important to take steps to protect yourself.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.