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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