Consumers Beware: Thieves Are Clearing Out Bank Accounts Using This Tactic

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KEY POINTS

  • Check washing is when thieves steal your handwritten checks and remove part of the ink so they can then rewrite the payee and amounts to steal your money.
  • Black gel ink is the most difficult kind to remove from a check, so consider using this type of pen to write checks.
  • Mail check payments from a post office, and consider switching to online bill pay to avoid becoming a victim.

Check washing is a tactic from before the age of digital payments.

You work hard for your money, so it's a good idea to do everything you can to keep it safe. To that end, you likely have a secure password on your mobile banking app. Maybe you even went paperless with your bank statements, so you don't get mail with account information delivered to your mailbox. Unfortunately, if you're still using paper checks to pay bills or send money to others, you could be a victim of an old scam that's recently come back into fashion: check washing.

What's check washing?

Check washing is when thieves steal checks you've written and use a chemical solution to remove the ink from the amount and the payee lines (while leaving your signature behind). Per IAG Forensics & Valuation, acetone is the most common chemical used (you may know it better as nail polish remover). Then the thieves can fill in their own names as the payee, write in any amount of money they want, and cash your check, potentially draining your checking account in the process.

According to IAG, check washing accounts for more than $815 million of stolen money every year, and first began in the 1980s. I remember hearing about it on TV news programs when I was growing up, and was surprised to discover it's hit the news again recently. For example, WTVG Toledo ran a story about it a few months ago, as some local residents have had money stolen in this way. As more and more people rely on digital payments, this old-fashioned scam has come back to prey on those still using paper checks.

How can you protect yourself?

Now that you know how check washing works, you're ready to protect your money. Here's how to keep your check payments safe and secure.

Use the right kind of pen -- and checks

The Better Business Bureau (as told to ABC7 Chicago) reported that black gel ink is the most resistant to being washed off checks. Blue ink, ballpoint pens, and markers labeled as being "permanent" are most susceptible. It's also important to choose checks that have embedded security features (such as watermarks and security inks). It's worth it to pay a little extra for these features.

Don't mail checks from home

Rather than leaving mailed checks in your home mailbox for pickup, where anyone can take them, drop them off at a mailbox inside your local post office. You can also drop your mail in a blue outside mailbox, but these aren't completely secure, so aim to drop mail off as close to a pick-up time as possible.

Keep an eye on your bank account

If you mail checks for bill payments, watch your account to ensure the checks arrived and were cashed for the right amounts. If you mail a check to a friend or family member, contact them to verify receipt. If something has gone wrong (the payments don't come out of your account or a different amount has), report the problem to your bank ASAP.

Consider making online payments instead

Finally, if you're still writing out paper checks, consider transitioning to online bill pay. Just about every entity out there accepts them, and they are usually free to make. You might need to create an online account for your utility company, credit card issuers, and so on, but you'll get the peace of mind that comes from knowing your money has been safely delivered to its intended recipient. You may also be able to pay bills through your bank; simply fill in the payment details and schedule it, and the bank will securely mail a physical check on your behalf.

It's a big scary world out there, and the resurgence of check washing is proof that increasing reliance on digital payments is making life more difficult for enterprising thieves. Be careful when paying with physical checks to avoid becoming a victim.

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