What Is Check Washing? How Can You Protect Yourself?

August 3, 2023


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    What Does Check Washing Mean?

    Check washing happens when scammers use special chemicals to remove the ink and alter both the payee and amount on a check. 

    These stolen checks from vandalized mailboxes could also be used to print copies. With a skillful hand and chemicals found in everyday household cleaning products, scammers can redirect your money straight to their own pockets.

    Most victims of check washing remain unaware until they see their bank account balances crater. One woman in New York was crestfallen to discover a $9,000 withdrawal instead of the expected $656 payment to her American Express account. Her funds had been unwittingly transferred to a stranger for an amount 13 times greater than she had intended [*].

    Despite most banks' vigilance against check fraud, recovering stolen funds can prove to be a Herculean task. Here’s what you can do to ensure that your checks are safe in the mail and reach their rightful recipients.

    How To Protect Yourself From Check Washing

    1. Safeguard your mail
    2. Use your online banking features
    3. Shred sensitive documents
    4. Use indelible black gel ink pens
    5. Opt for checks with security features
    6. Learn how to spot altered checks

    1. Safeguard your mail

    Stealing mail is a federal crime, but this seldom deters scammers. Standalone mailboxes are a gold mine for scammers who prowl the area, waiting for you to drop off outgoing mail. For scammers, curating envelopes that may contain paper checks is as easy as holding them up against the light. As soon as mail thieves open the envelope, your money is as good as gone.

    • Don’t leave your checks in non-secure residential receptacles or collection boxes; it may be a few hours until USPS arrives. Instead, mail your checks at a United States post office or directly hand your mail to carriers. 
    • Another prudent option is to send your check at work. Offices take extra security precautions to ensure that their mail isn’t stolen.
    • If you’re going on vacation, hold or reroute your mail. Letting your mail sit in your mailbox overnight makes you an immediate check washing target.
    • If you are not inclined to visit the local post office to place a hold on your mail, create an online USPS account. Once you verify your identity, you can initiate a hold via USPS.com for up to 30 days, starting 30 days prior to your trip [*].

    📌 Read more: Fake Check Scams: How To Identify Them (and What To Do)

    2. Use your online banking features

    Every time you send a check, verify that it’s cashed for the same amount that you indicated, and is made out to the correct person or company. 

    Scanning your bank statements every 30 days can also help you find inconsistencies, overdue notices, or checks that haven’t cleared.

    Any unfamiliar entries on your statement warrant more investigation as well as identity theft protection. Identity Guard for example, can monitor your credit reports and scores from the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

    This way, you will receive timely alerts in the event of any data breaches or unauthorized activity that expose your information.

    One way to reduce potential fraud is to pay recurring bills online. Most companies and services offer online bill pay and sometimes extend discounts for opting in to paperless account management.

    Financial institutions also use “positive pay” to discourage check washing fraud. Once positive pay is activated, your bank will match checks based on the dollar amount, check number, and payee name that you provide. Some banks take this a step further, looking for [*]: 

    • Canceled checks
    • Stale-dated checks (checks not cashed within one year from the date of issue)
    • Duplicate serial numbers
    • Missing serial numbers
    • Checks exceeding an amount you specify

    If a check doesn’t reconcile with the information you provided, your bank will intervene and send you a notification. Ask your banker what positive pay options exist and how much they cost. Depending on your account plan, you may get positive pay for free or for a reduced fee.

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    3. Shred sensitive documents

    On the off chance that you made errors while issuing a check or need to cancel one, do not simply discard the check.  Crooks can rummage through your trash and recycling bin to find and wash your checks.

    • Instead, shred unused or canceled checks and other sensitive bank statements. Some examples could be checks that you’ve received from someone else (and already deposited remotely) or checks included with pre-approved credit notices. Shredding banking statements can also curb identity theft.
    • Make a point to inventory your check supply, as well. Fraudsters may have intercepted your checkbook before you’ve received it in the mail or stolen blank checks without your knowledge.
    • Immediately report any missing checks to your bank. Have your account number available along with the missing check number (if you know it). Ask the bank to stop any payments and close your account. Note that some banks will charge up to $30 to cancel a check, but may waive the fee if you have a premium account [*].

    4. Use indelible black gel ink pens

    The type of pen you use to sign a check can make it nearly impossible for criminals to wash. The common household items that fraudsters typically use — like acetone, bleach, and rubbing alcohol — only work for inks of a certain polarity. Because of its chemical properties, indelible ink can resist a scammer’s typical washing mixture [*].

    Besides replacing your ballpoint pens with indelible gel pens, write your checks with as little space between numbers as possible. This way, scammers can’t tack on a few digits in stealth.

    You should also avoid using blank “counter checks” or “convenience checks.” Writing in all of your personal (or company) information by hand increases the chances of washing. 

    And the limited security features of counter checks leave the door wide open to fraud. Scammers can make copies of blank washed checks and reuse or sell them.

    📌 Read more: How To Check If Someone Opened an Account In Your Name

    5. Opt for checks with one or more security features

    Check manufacturers add specific hallmarks to checks to reduce the chances of fraud. Talk to your bank to confirm that your checks have some of these features:

    • Watermarks: Watermarks are only visible when viewed at an angle, making them difficult for scammers to emulate. United States Treasury checks, for example, bear a “U.S. TREASURY” watermark that can only be seen when held up to the light, and can’t be reproduced by a copier [*].
    • Copy void pantographs: Checks with copy void pantographs have tamper-resistant patterns that appear only on duplication. Such pantographs could reveal words like “void,” “copy,” or “invalid.” It will be apparent that the reproduced copy is, in fact, not original or valid.
    • Security inks: Tamper-evident inks make it apparent that someone has attempted to alter a check. Solvent sensitive ink, for example, can smudge or fluoresce when it comes in contact with solvents meant for washing.
    • High-resolution micro printing: The fine print around check borders and signature lines is tricky to reproduce. If a criminal tries to make a copy, the text becomes a solid line or series of dots.
    • Three-dimensional reflective holostripe: Some checks include unique metal strips or seals that are near-impossible to scan or recreate.
    • Invisible fiber: Fluorescent cellulose fibers are tough to see with the naked eye and even harder to duplicate. By embedding them in your checks, banks can stop suspicious checks before they plummet your checking account.
    • Visible fibers: Visible fibers can be placed anywhere on a check in various colors, lengths, and densities. Combining these with invisible fibers and other security features reduces the potential for check falsification.

    6. Learn how to spot altered checks

    Although banks will send you alerts if they suspect check washing, you should still scrutinize checks for evidence of tampering. Make it a habit to:

    • Verify that any check you receive is from a legitimate bank before you deposit it. 
    • Check for any smudges, discoloration, or unidentifiable text on cashed check images. Verify that words like “original document” appear on the back of the check. 
    • Contact your bank if you identify amount discrepancies and overpayments.

    📌 Read more: Check Deposit Scams: Are You Liable for a Bad Check?

    Here’s How To Report These Scams

    If you’ve been the victim of a check washing scam, there are a few ways to reclaim your money.

    First, read your bank’s policies

    This will arm you with the information that you need to dispute unlawful withdrawals and overdraw fees [*]. Depending on your state, you have 30 to 60 days from the date of your last bank statement to report an unauthorized check [*]. 

    But the sooner you contact your bank, the better. It can take them weeks or even months to determine which institution is liable for the loss.

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    Next, assess potential damage

    It’s not uncommon for scammers to send fake, washed checks in the mail after declaring that you have won a lottery

    These fraudulent checks will be issued for an amount in excess of the intended amount. Scammers then beseech you to return such overpayments with a wire transfer or by using apps like Zelle.

    By the time the fraudulent check bounces, the scammers will have absconded with your money. Depositing a fake check could also result in processing fees; your bank will debit the full amount of the fake check. Be ready to dispute the charges by documenting the type of fraud in detail.

    • To stop a wire transfer, contact providers like MoneyGram or Western Union and ask them to reverse the wire [*]. Your bank can also assist with reversal if you completed the transaction using the bank.
    • To stop a Zelle or Venmo payment, file a fraud claim under Regulation E, a law protecting electronic fund and remittance transfers [*]. Make it clear that you made an incorrect transfer from your account by sharing images of your communications with the scammer. If the fraudster hasn’t already created a Zelle account, you may be able to cancel the payment and recover funds.
    • To get gift card money back, contact the company that issued your gift card. Reporting your case with as much detail as possible may help you get your money back, but know that gift cards are tough to trace and dispute. If you purchased gift cards with a credit card, contact the issuer to dispute the charge.

    Finally, report the scam

    For any kind of check washing scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Better Business Bureau (BBB), and your state’s attorney general. Provide as much detail as you can, including screenshots, check numbers, bank statements, and anything else you can recall  about the scam.

    Contact your local FBI field office and file a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) in case of an internet-based scam. The faster you report it, the quicker they can help you support fund recovery.

    For mail-based fraud, contact the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS). They will ask how you were contacted, when you were contacted, and how you responded. If you suspect mail theft, you’ll be redirected to USPS, where you can log a separate report.

    Protect Your Identity With Identity Guard

    Most often, identity theft protection services extend coverage for check fraud and other types of financial fraud. While coverage of identity theft insurance policies varies between insurers, it generally aims to reimburse you for losses incurred due to identity theft.

    If you are a prior victim of check washing or related fraud, register for Identity Guard’s identity theft protection with credit monitoring to receive near real-time fraud alerts.

    Shield your identity and finances. Join Identity Guard now and save 33%

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    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
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