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A Dirty Business

Jonathan Clements

ON MONDAY, MAY 2, I logged onto my Chase bank account—and discovered my balance was $992.43, many thousands of dollars less than I expected. My first thought: I’m going to get hit with a low-balance fee.

That, alas, should have been the least of my worries.

I clicked through to see the account details, and discovered that check No. 1126 had been made out to Milton Cherry for $7,000. But none of the writing on the check was mine, except the signature.

I had indeed written check No. 1126. But when I did so, it was made out to the City of Philadelphia for $123 and then stuck in the mail, along with my City of Philadelphia School Income Tax Return.

I soon learned of a phenomenon that, until that point, I’d been blissfully unaware: check washing. It seems there’s a group of criminals in the Philadelphia area who have been opening mailboxes, fishing out envelopes that appear to contain checks, altering those checks and then cashing them.

What followed were calls to Chase’s fraud department, the postal service’s investigation unit and the local police, followed by a visit to a local Chase branch to open a new checking account. Then began the arduous task of changing all automatic debits—think water, gas, electricity, internet—as well as one regular credit. I also had to link my new bank account to my Vanguard Group account and my Discover credit card.

That was followed the next week by two hours on the phone with Chase’s fraud department and then another visit to the local Chase branch. Further calls to Chase followed, trying to find out what was going on. All in all, countless hours were flushed away, which bothered me more than the loss of the $7,000, which I presumed would be temporary.

Sure enough, on June 10, Chase credited my account for the stolen $7,000. A happy ending? My faith in Chase has been solidified. But my faith in the postal service is shaken. Our relationship was already on rocky ground, thanks to the pandemic and the resulting delivery disruption, including some mail I sent that never made it to its destination.

Now, I’m just not sure I can trust the mail service. I’ve taken to walking to the closest post office and mailing letters there, rather than sliding them into the local mailbox. But even that seems risky. In my mind, dependable mail delivery is a hallmark of modern life, right up there with regular trash collection and reliable electrical service. It’s a sad day when you can’t mail a birthday card and a check to your niece without fear your bank account will get emptied.

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Peter Blanchette
Peter Blanchette
3 months ago

If the possibility of this happening again is such a traumatic thing for you there is an easy solution. Attach a wireless transmitter to the door of the mailbox. They are usually good up to a few hundred feet from your mailbox. A transmitter of this type can be easily found on the internet.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
3 months ago

The mailbox in question wasn’t mine, but a public one.

David Merkel
David Merkel
3 months ago

Something like this happened to me as well. 2 differences — SunTrust did not reimburse me. Second, because it was done via remote deposit capture, it was not illegal in Maryland as forgery.

Tooney
Tooney
3 months ago

The problem is not just mail theft by fishing mail out of mailboxes.

Newspaper articles about continuing mail thefts from boxes in Dayton, OH, and surrounding areas reported that a key to the mailboxes was missing and
-wait for it- …….

all the mailboxes in Dayton and surrounding towns had locks that are opened with the same key

mjflack
mjflack
3 months ago

Great article. Almost wish this happened to me . . . so I could write about it.

George Counihan
George Counihan
3 months ago

Not to absolve the USPS but I’ve had lost/damaged FedEx packages and UPS problems too … the explosion of online shopping is taking its toll on all of them I believe. Also had a recent misfortune of a card skimming at a gas station. A mess that I doubt will improve any time soon

AKROGER SHOPPER
AKROGER SHOPPER
3 months ago

Jonathan thank you for a most informative article. I will now take a foto of all checks written going toward for proof when this experience strikes here.

Harold Philby
Harold Philby
3 months ago

Since we’re discussin the USPS here’s one more issue. USPS Certified or Registered mail does not provide tracking outside of the US. Sent a watch to Japan for repair via Certified mail and the Post Office was of no help once it left the US. Use UPS or Fed Ex, they’ll track all the way through.

CJ
CJ
3 months ago

another tip: if you do have to close a longstanding bank acct due to fraud and may need to access your account history, make sure you download past statements for the timeframe you want to retain before closing.

Past transaction records were no long available to me once my account closed – at least at my bank. Not sure if that’s true elsewhere.

I downloaded 2 years of statements before closing.

Jonathan Clements
Admin
Jonathan Clements
3 months ago
Reply to  CJ

That’s great advice. I did the same thing — I downloaded three years of Chase statements before I closed the defrauded account.

Michael1
Michael1
3 months ago

Sorry this happened Jonathan. Agree that dependable mail should be a “hallmark of modern life.”

We lost faith in our local post office a long time ago. To cap things off, we dropped a birthday card in the mail in mid-February, and the recipient got it more than two months later, postmarked April 27.

We’ve taken to not only taking important mail to the post office, but taking it to the PO in another town. Don’t know that that’s any better, but doubt it’s any worse.

Some other good ideas in the thread we need to think about as well.

Devesh Shah
Devesh Shah
3 months ago

This happened to me in NY as well. In NYC the post has changed all mailboxes so they have one way “teeth” in them. You can deposit a letter but the thieves can no longer take them out of the mailbox. One needs the key, which presumably only have the postal workers have.

William Perry
William Perry
3 months ago

I have read that higher quality pens that have archival-quality pigment ink offers extraordinary levels of water, chemical, and light resistance making traditional physical washing of checks more difficult for the crooks.
I also like to follow Denise’s thoughts for separate credit cards for online purchases.
I still use cash at restaurants where the credit card goes out of my sight. That has been a limited problem for the time Covid has been raging.
While Jonathan’s misery caused by the crook is unfortunate, his sharing of the event and comments will certainly help Humble Dollar readers take actions which will mitigate or eliminate the damage from future fraud schemes.

Denise Clark
Denise Clark
3 months ago

Oh, and while we are on the topic of stolen accounts and the hassle of resetting up all those auto-payments which happened to us about 5 years ago…I now use a credit card that never gets “out into the wild” for all bill auto-payments – that card stays in the safe. For other credit card use – restaurants, online purchases, etc. – my husband and I each have a card we use for those types of purchases. If stolen, not as big a deal as no auto-payments are attached to them. Another idea…

Denise Clark
Denise Clark
3 months ago

I am sorry about your experience, Jonathan. Stealing from mailboxes has been going on for quite some time. In those rare cases when I cannot send a gift card via email, I send cash. Can it be stolen? Yes, but easier to recover from than your situation. In the rare case where I must write a check (yard maintenance), I use my personal checking account that has minimal money in it; that way, if compromised there isn’t enough to steal and I don’t have to change any auto-payments. Just a few ideas for the future!

MikeinLACA
MikeinLACA
3 months ago

As a former federal prosecutor, I can tell you that crooks have been stealing mail and washing checks for decades. In our era of cybercrime and sophisticated “synthetic identity” fraud, the criminals often start by obtaining an account number, an inactive credit card, or a check by stealing the mail.

I’m a bit baffled that such a smart and cautious guy like Jonathan (how many articles have we seen on HD about electronic payments, password managers, etc.) just threw a check into a public mailbox. You can pay your taxes by mailing in the stub and separately sending payment from the check services at Chase / Schwab / Vanguard – much less risk. Or yes, walk into the post office and drop the letter. There’s still theft by postal employees, but it’s patrolled much better than the neighborhood mailbox.

Edwin Belen
Edwin Belen
3 months ago
Reply to  MikeinLACA

Same thought as it’s rare I write checks, more because of the inconvenience but now more for safety reasons.

Last edited 3 months ago by Edwin Belen
Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
3 months ago

Jonathan, so sorry for your experience. I’ve likewise been the victim of several credit card scams over the years but “check washing” is a new one to me. All of this is now a sad fact of modern life, and as in your case, the money is usually not ultimately lost but the hassles are enormous.

After the last one we experienced we froze our credit at the big 3 credit bureaus, which helps with a lot but not against check washing.

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
3 months ago

Thanks for your story Jonathan. I’ve had my credit card hacked a few times, but never this. I write very few checks anymore, but I will keep it in mind going forward.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
3 months ago

This happened to us a few years ago. No bank teller would have ever accepted the altered check but the ATM will if the written amount in numbers is legible and they have an account. Like you, it was a big hassle to switch all of our auto deposits and payments.

This money was deposited to an account at our bank, so its seems it would be easily tracked to the perpetrator. I contacted the police because I wanted someone to pay for this, but the bank would not cooperate. Since our check was stolen out of a PO Box at the post office, I wanted to inform them of the issue. I was advised not to contact the branch since they may be involved but to report my complaint online. It was an arduous tasks but I did it. It was essentially a black hole because I did not know if my case was dealt with or not. I did see a news report a few months later that some postal employees in our city were arrested for mail theft. The policy told me that mail theft like this was a huge issue in our town.

I no longer trust the post office to deliver payments or gift cards by mail. I go to great lengths to avoid that. When I do have mail payments, I drive several miles further to a different post office and put my mail inside that post office.

James McGlynn CFA RICP®
James McGlynn CFA RICP®
3 months ago

I had someone try to re-use a check I wrote. They deposited it electronically so still had the check. They tried to cash again but I caught them. Paper checks will be replaced by blockchain/Bitcoin.

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
3 months ago

I’m sorry this happened to you. In Massachusetts the postal service replaced mail boxes with new fishing resistant boxes. Some boxes also have a sign warning customers not to deposit mail after the last pickup of the day. I often go inside the post office to deposit mail now and make it part of my weekly routine of errands. I sometimes run into people I haven’t seen in a long time so that’s an added benefit.

Dick Pagano
Dick Pagano
3 months ago

The same happened to me at Christmas. Luckily Chase was a big help but it was an excruciating process. Going forward I don’t put checks in the mail anymore.

Ormode
Ormode
3 months ago

The checking system is pretty robust. Chase would simply return the check for credit to whatever bank sent it to them. It is their fault for opening an account for a shady customer, although the CHEX system is supposed to prevent this. They are supposed to require thorough documentation and ID before opening an account, and if they are scammed, that’s their problem.

Will
Will
3 months ago

Is our civilization crumbling before our eyes? Why do we put endless money into those things built on the backs of roads, electricity, education, safe water—-and yet we let those basics needs go wanting?

Paul LaVanway
Paul LaVanway
3 months ago

“But my faith in the postal service is shaken.” Gosh, if you want to lose complete faith in the USPS, just try collecting on the “additional insurance” that you’ve purchased for a package that you’ve shipped by USPS after the package in question has become “lost” in the system and never is delivered to the intended recipient. USPS has a veritable laundry list of bureaucratic reasons and fall-backs as to why they are not obligated to “make good” on their package insurance.

CJ
CJ
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul LaVanway

certified mail is another ripoff. I send payment to certain entities via certified mail and pay extra for “return receipt”. A few times, I didn’t get anything back – so basically paid $7 a shot for nothing. Trying to get a refund is a total time sink.

Chazooo
Chazooo
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul LaVanway

IMHO the USPS should simply state they will no longer accept responsibility for any mail or packages lost; no longer offer insurance for their mishandling, in other words, caveat emptor. Then we would not feel like we could mail valuables without concerns.
Along those lines, whatever happenend to registered mail service where the responsible mail carriers were armed and presumably dangerous to anyone with theft of currency, diamonds, etc. on their mind?

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