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Check Washing – What Is It?
Altering a legitimate check using a chemical process is called “Check Washing”. Chemically erasing specific information from a check allows criminals to rewrite the name of the payee and the amount of the check.
The process is not difficult. Criminals first search through mailboxes, called “mailbox fishing”, looking for paper checks to steal. The stolen check is prepared by placing a protective seal, such as low adhesive tape, over the signature line to preserve the account holder’s signature. The check is then placed in acetone, paint thinner, or bleach. These chemicals can dissolve the ink found in standard ballpoint pens. Finally, the check is hung to dry.
The result is a signed blank check which the criminal can rewrite or sell for profit. The owner of the account will only be made aware of the fraud when the check clears in their bank account. It could take weeks for the check to clear, and the damage could be severe.
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has issued an alert on the nationwide surge in mail theft-related check fraud. They provide these steps to avoid this happening to you:
- Don't put bills in a residential mailbox. The standing red flag is an invitation to a thief. If you need to place outgoing mail in your box, do it immediately before the letter carrier comes.
- Deposit your outgoing mail in blue collection boxes at your local Post Office.
- Never leave mail in your mailbox overnight. If you are going on vacation, have your mail held at the Post Office or picked up by a friend, family, or neighbor.
- Pick up new books of checks at your local bank branch rather than having them shipped directly to your residence.
- Check bank statements immediately after receiving them. If you fail to report check fraud within 60 days of receiving your monthly statement, you may be responsible for those transactions.
- Don't discard credit card records or bills with household trash. Shred or burn them.
- Enroll in online banking and monitor your accounts regularly for unusual or unauthorized transactions.
If you must write a check, use a black gel pen. The ink contained in a standard blue ballpoint pen is easily removed with acetone. Black gel ink contains pigments that permeate the fibers of the check making it difficult to strip. Using gel pens with black ink provides the best protection against check washing.
A washed check could lead to bigger problems. Criminals will sell washed checks for a significant profit. Stolen checks also provide criminals with any personal information printed on the check, such as bank account and routing numbers, phone number, and home address.
It is not just personal checks that are impacted. FinCEN reports business checks are more valuable to criminals because business accounts are typically well-funded and may not be reviewed as often.
For more information on Business Identity Theft and awareness, contact The National Cybersecurity Society, a non-profit organization focused on providing cybersecurity education, awareness, and advocacy to small businesses.
If you are a victim of check washing, contact your bank as soon as you as possible. Also, report it the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the credit reporting agencies.
If you have a consumer complaint, or believe you've been the victim of a scam, please file a complaint with the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Team at:
Consumer Protection Team
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Online complaint form