Imagine this situation: You write checks to pay your bills each month. When you check your bank statement you see the checks cleared and you move on. But, for some reason, the banks begin calling and sending notices of non-payment. But, the payment check cleared, you say. To prove it you get copies of the cancelled checks from your bank and see the payee had been changed before the check was cashed. How did that happen, you wonder…
Check washing is a common form of identity theft. You wouldn’t hand a blank check to a stranger, but if you put your completed checks in an unsecure mail box, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
What is Check Washing?
Check washing is a technique identity thieves use to remove the written information from your check. Sometimes, the thief leaves the amount and only changes the “Pay to” information to himself. Other times, the thief alters the “Pay To” and the amount, often for several hundred or even thousands of dollars. Back in the days when checks bounced when there wasn’t enough money in the account, a washed check might not have cost you. But, since banks have gone the way of overdraft protection, we have a lot more to lose when a check gets washed.
Thieves can use an array of everyday chemicals to wash a check – bleach, nail polish remover, rubbing alcohol – things that are found around your home and even on the shelves of your neighborhood Wal-Mart. They dip your check into the chemical and, in as little as five minutes, the check is completely clean. They’re free to fill in the check with whatever they wish. Many check washers use labels or other methods to preserve your original signature.
How to Protect Yourself
As easy as it is for thieves to wash checks, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
- Don’t use a generic ink pen. Generic ink pens wash much easier than gel pens. Pen manufacturer Uni-ball recently released a pen with a specially formulated ink that won’t wash out. According to Uni-ball’s press release, the ink gets trapped in the check fibers and won’t budge, even for the harshest chemicals. (Check out Law & Order’s S. Epatha Merkerson in Uni-ball’s new TV ad campaign.)
- Order checks with chemically-sensitive paper. Check manufacturers are also taking steps to prevent check washing. Some checks are printed on a paper that reacts to certain chemicals. When the paper comes in contact with those chemicals, the word “void” appears on the check. A check teller should not cash a check that has been voided.
- Mail your bills safely. Plenty of thieves take checks directly out of your mailbox after you’ve placed them for the mailman to pickup. Put a lock on your mailbox and don’t raise the flag. That’s an invitation for the thief to target your box. Put your letters in your mailbox as close to the pickup time as possible and avoid leaving letters in the mail overnight. Even better, drop your letters off at the post office.
- Pay your bills online. Of course, the best way to prevent check washing is to avoid using checks all together. These days, most (if not all) of your bills can be paid online either directly to the biller or via your bank’s online bill pay system.
- Check your bank account often to see what checks have cleared. Don’t take for granted that because the check cleared for the correct amount that the intended recipient cashed it. Review copies of cancelled checks as soon as they are available to make sure the check was cashed by the correct person. If you don’t have access to your cancelled checks right away, check with the recipient to be sure the check was received.
Contact your bank as soon as you notice something wrong. The sooner you let your bank know there’s a problem, the better your chances of getting your money back.