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My Experience with Check Fraud – And What You Can Learn From It

As many of you know, I’m currently serving as the Secretary for The John C. Bogle Center for Financial Literacy. A few months ago, there was a form I needed to file with the Texas Secretary of State on behalf of the Center.

The form in question requires a $5 filing fee. For just $5, I decided it was simpler to pay the fee myself, rather than bothering Ben Holland (Treasurer for the Center) to have the Center pay the fee. So I wrote a personal check, included it in the envelope with the form, and dropped the envelope in the blue USPS mailbox down the block.

Below is the check I wrote. (Please forgive the messy handwriting. I was not expecting to show this check to thousands of people. The address is an old address, but I rarely write personal checks anymore, so I had never bothered to have new checks made.)

And below is what the check looked like, when it was cashed/deposited. (If the images are not coming through in your email/browser, here’s the original check and here’s what it looked like after alteration.)

Apparently somebody intercepted the check, chemically “washed” it to remove the ink on specific portions of the check, and wrote in a new payee, amount, and (partial) memo.

In the months since this occurred, I’ve seen a handful of articles about the topic and heard from many people who have had a similar experience, as it’s apparently nothing short of a fraud epidemic at the moment.

Per the police detective who was in charge of the case, they’re getting ~30 of these reports per day. And that’s just in our patrol district (i.e., a few neighborhoods in St. Louis).

We did eventually get our money back. But, in total, resolving the situation took more than 3 months and required 14 phone calls (including I have no idea how much time spent on hold), 2 visits to local Bank of America branches, and 2 visits to the police station.

If I had not scanned the original check before mailing it, the process likely would have taken longer.

And we had to close our checking account, open a new one, and switch over everything that automatically charged to the old account.

In short, even if you get your money back, I assure you that it’s an experience you’d like to avoid, if possible.

As far as how to avoid being on the receiving end of check fraud, the most important and easiest thing you can do is just to avoid mailing checks. Pay electronically whenever you can. (I know that’s my own preference regardless of this mess.)

If you do have to mail a check, if possible have it sent via your bank (i.e., using a “bill pay” feature) rather than writing it by hand.

If that’s not possible, write the check in sharpie, as apparently that ink is the hardest to remove.

And if you do have to mail a check, do not put it in your mailbox or a blue mailbox on the corner, as those locations have a higher likelihood of being physically intercepted. Instead, drop it off directly at the post office. (Though I have heard from people who have been victims of check washing fraud despite mailing the check at the post office, which suggests there’s some degree of an “inside job” going on here. So again, best to not mail checks at all, if possible.)

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