By Dan Guarino
With all the fast-paced data theft, credit cons, and cyber scams out there, the latest consumer fraud to hit Rockaway is low tech, very old school and hitting people all over the peninsula.
But up to now, most people had never heard of “check washing” until it happened to them.
As one resident explained, “In January, I sent a check out for $175 to a company in Florida. A few weeks later, I noticed the check hadn’t been cashed. I kept checking my account. Then, suddenly, I find a couple thousand dollars is missing from my bank account!”
It turns out scammers stole his mailed check. Then, using ordinary chemicals like bleach or nail polish remover, they wiped the name of the company it was made out to and the original amount. “The only thing they left was the date and my signature,” he said.
They then wrote in whatever name they wanted to cash the check under and a totally new amount. In this case, his original $175 check became one for $6,830, set to be cashed out from his unsuspecting account.
According to AARP, “Crooks steal checks left in mailboxes or remove mail deposited in U.S. Postal Service collection boxes by using keys stolen from mail carriers or by fishing them out with string and something sticky — like rodent glue traps or a glue-covered bottle.”
The man noted his check “had been cashed at some bank in Connecticut. They don’t even go into the bank except to set up the account (to cash or deposit the stolen checks with). They just take out whatever amount they want. Or they get some high school kid to open an account and say, ‘Hey, want to make some money? Go cash this check, and we’ll give you $300 from it.’ This way, if something happens, the kid, or whoever, gets in trouble, and they’re nowhere near it. But they can clean out your whole account.”
Thieves may also copy, use or sell your routing and account numbers to make fraudulent purchases with.
Fortunately, the man went straight to his bank once he noticed the discrepancy. “They were very helpful. I was able to get my money back. I was lucky. But I heard about somebody who lost $40,000 that way. Imagine if I hadn’t seen it right away?”
Another Rockaway woman was not so lucky. “I had two postal money orders washed. One for $50. Then another, for $358.60, for my brother’s rent. I put them in the box at the post office in Lawrence so they could pick it up in the morning and mail it right out.” That was February 1. Neither check made it to their destination. “I had to pay $14 to have a trace put on both money orders. The $50 they couldn’t find. The other was cashed on February 13 by some unknown person. They washed the name and changed it to some guy’s name who was giving it to another person, going into some unknown account.”
It might seem like a printed-out money order, especially a postal one, would be more secure. It’s true, she said, “they can’t wash out the amount on a money order. But they can change the name on it and who it is going to.”
She did go to the Nassau County Police Department’s 4th Precinct to report the incident. “They took the information and gave me a letter that said it was fraud,” she said.
To date, however, she has been unable to recover any of her money. So, besides the time and funds spent trying to resolve the issue, she is now out of pocket for yet another $50 owed and another $358.60 for her brother’s rent.
As one of the NYPD’s 100th Precinct Community Affairs Officers, PO Victor Boamah often addresses groups to bring awareness of check washing and other scams.
“Seniors are affected the most,” he said. “Two weeks ago, we had someone who went to the postal mailbox by Beach Channel Drive. She mailed her mortgage payment. When she put it in, two to three weeks later the bank said they never received it. They found that someone had gotten the check.”
He noted overall, such incidents at the 100th Precinct have been decreasing. But “the key is to employ all methods available to prevent you from becoming a victim in the first place,” Boamah said.
If you are mailing checks for bills and such, he said, “mail it directly inside the post office.” If you must use a mailbox, “make sure you put your envelopes all the way in the slot.”
Even better, Boamah suggests paying your bills online. Nearly all service providers offer, even encourage, the option to pay directly from your checking account. Customers can sign up for automatic payments or opt to go online and authorize an individual payment each month. Either over the phone or in-person, most banks will assist their customers in setting this up.
Boamah also recommends signing up for automatic alerts every time a check is presented for payment from your accounts. Also, he suggests credit monitoring sites, like Credit Karma, which alert you if anyone is fraudulently trying to apply for a loan or get a credit card using your information.
But “if you find out you are a victim, don’t hesitate to call 911 right away,” Boamah said.
And as the first Rockaway resident mentioned advises, be vigilant. “Now, when I’m having my coffee every morning at 8 a.m., I check my accounts online. I feel bad for the people who don’t usually check their accounts, who don’t go online, and just get a paper statement every month. ‘Cause then it’s too late.”
To schedule a presentation on check washing and/or other scam prevention, please contact the Community Affairs unit at the 100th Precinct at 718-318-4233 or at the 101st Precinct’s unit at 718-868-3441.
Photos by Dan Guarino.