7 actions you can take to avoid check washing crooks, plus latest Covid-19 scam news: Internet Scambusters #905
New Coronavirus scams are appearing virtually every day, and the latest one is targeting people who get Social Security payments.
Meanwhile, an old favorite scam is back on the crime scene — check washing.
We’ll give you the lowdown on these scams in this week’s issue with, as always, guidance on how to avoid them.
Let’s get started…
Social Security Recipients Targeted in Latest Coronavirus Scam + Return of Check Washing
Coronavirus Scams Spotlight on Social Security Threat
Among the latest Coronavirus scams comes news of a cruel trick targeting people who receive Social Security payments.
Crooks have been sending out letters via snail mail, pretending to come from the US Social Security Administration (SSA) saying their payments will be suspended because of issues relating to the virus.
The letters ask recipients to phone a number where they’re either asked for personal information (used for ID theft) or to make a payment via gift cards to get payments reinstated.
While it’s true that Social Security offices were closed to the public in mid-March, this does not affect payments, and SSA staff are still working.
Furthermore, the agency says it will never threaten suspension or legal action unless a fine or fee is paid. Nor does it ever require payment by gift card, wire transfer or even cash.
Check our earlier issues for more Coronavirus scam reports, and please pass on these details to friends and family.
Now, onto our main report for this week…
7 Steps to Avoid Check Washing Scam
Check washing is back. That’s the scam in which criminals steal checks from victims’ mailboxes and change the name of the payee (the person receiving the money) to themselves.
This crime has been around for almost as long as checks have been, and with use of this method of paying dropping sharply in recent years, you’d think the scam itself would also be in decline.
And you’d think that technology would somehow have made it impossible to erase and replace the name of the payee.
But no. According to the National Check Fraud Center (NCFC), scammers use the technique to get away with millions of dollars every year. And the US Postal Inspection Service says its team recovers more than $1 billion of counterfeit checks and money orders every year.
The scam works precisely because many people have either forgotten or don’t even know it, even bank tellers who hand over cash to the crooks.
The crooks erase payee details using chemicals found in common household cleaning products. In the interest of security, we won’t say here exactly what those chemicals are.
They then take great care to try to match the ink color and remaining handwriting when they insert their own name. In most cases, they also alter the amount for which the check is made out.
They use a fake name, of course, and then march into a bank with a matching fake ID, like a phony driver’s license, and ask for the cash.
“One woman became so adept at the technique she prowled the streets with a portable computer, printer and laminating machine in her car, cranking out new identification each time she swiped a batch of bills,” NCFC says.
“Of course, she had to take the time to wash the ink from the two vital areas of the check, making sure she doesn’t tamper with the written signature.”
The first the victim usually knows about this is when the person or organization they sent the money to notifies them that they haven’t been paid, which can be weeks or even months later.
Or when they discover a check that was sent to them never arrived.
In some cases, banks have agreed to compensate victims by refunding the lost money, but this depends entirely on policy.
Seven (7) Tips
Are you still using checks to pay bills or to receive payments from others via the postal service? If so, here are 7 tips and pointers to help you avoid this scam.
- First, and most important, consider other more secure ways of paying your bills — such as via credit or debit card or direct payment/transfer from your bank. Likewise, others can pay you via electronic transfer or PayPal.
- Use a gel pen to write the check. This ink is reportedly more difficult to remove than regular ballpoint ink.
- Don’t place check payments in an unlocked mailbox. Ideally, post them at a post office. You could place them in a USPS mailbox, but these are also potentially vulnerable to thieves. Best practice is to place them in the box just before the last collection of the day.
- If you have no alternative to using your own mailbox, place the payment in the box just before your mail person’s normal collection time. At the very least, don’t leave it in the box overnight, on Sundays, or holidays.
- If you expect to receive check payments in the mail, ensure you have a lockable box that self-locks on closing after the deliverer has placed the items inside.
- Check your bank statement regularly. In particular, review copies of your paid checks. Most banks will either return presented checks to customers (on request) or make images of them available online.
- Finally, if you’re discarding a check, perhaps because you made a mistake or — as happens increasingly these days — you deposited an incoming one electronically via a scanner, shred it. Don’t just put it in the trash where crooks may find it.
Like a number of other scams, check washing works because it’s easy to do and difficult to spot. Follow the actions we’ve outlined above — and check with your bank on its policy regarding compensation if you do fall victim.
That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!