Mail theft occurs nationwide through a variety of ways, but serious criminals look for large volumes of mail. According to the annual reports, the U.S. Postal Service reported 3,435 volume mail thefts in fiscal year 1999, 3,999 in 2000 and 6,752 in 2001. Some mail thieves walk from mailbox to mailbox in residential areas. They will make photocopies of a legitimate flyer that they can then use as a distraction and appear to have a legitimate purpose for opening all the mailboxes in the neighborhood. In the process, they remove any existing mail.
Advances in technology have aided counterfeiting of stolen checks. All the thief needs is a software program, blank check stock, and a printer. Counterfeiters use computers, scanners, readily available software such as Versa Check (which is used to create personal and business checks available at office supply stores), and laser and color printers to create high quality checks that look authentic. With this technology the thief then only needs the account information from a consumers check. Thieves are also using computers, scanners and digital cameras to create bogus identification documents to use in negotiating these checks. In some cases, company logos and account numbers were cut from other documents and pasted onto a master check and a copy of the master was then made. The account information is entered into the software program and a counterfeit check is created. The altered check image was then copied onto blank check stock using a photocopy machine. The thief can now write checks payable for any amount they choose. The counterfeit checks are used until they have drained the money out of your account or you have noticed the activity and closed the account.
Check washing costs banks and merchants "hundreds of thousands of dollars" a year, and ultimately, we, the consumer, pays for that in higher fees or prices. The National Automated Clearing House Association reported that check-washing losses would top $2 billion this year.
Curbside mailboxes with their bright red flags standing up are the signal for postal deliverers to pick up outgoing mail. But they've also become a signal to thieves. Check washing is a process in which Identity Thieves use a combination of chemicals found in common household products to erase ("wash") the hand written ink from a check. The thief can then make the check payable to himself or herself or someone else. They can also change the amount of the check to be hundreds if not thousands more than it was written for originally. The types of chemicals used to wash checks include:
1. Acetone, most widely used, is a highly volatile organic solvent used mainly as a hand-wipe solvent in cleaning applications. It is also a good drying agent for wet parts. But it will erase most inks from a stolen check without any noticeable effect.
4. Carbon Tetrachloride, most widely used in carpet cleaning,
5. Chloromice "T", a mild form of bleach.
6. Fox "IT", used mostly with stamp collectors.
7. Clear Correction Fluids.
8. A high-performance eraser to erase everything from ballpoint pen ink, PPC and Diazo copy ink, to typewriter ribbon ink, drafting ink, and printed matter.
Law enforcement and businesses are making efforts to prevent mail theft. Many banks are requiring that nonaccount holders, those opening new accounts and those purchasing cashier’s checks and money orders provide a fingerprint to the face of the check they are cashing. A thumbprint or index fingerprint is placed on the lower-center portion of the face of the check between the memo and signature lines. If the check is found to be forged, evidence is available for investigation by law enforcement.
A washed check has several discernible characteristics such as:
The finish on the check paper may look or feel softer that the original.
The ink may be slightly different.
The check paper color may have a grayish tint.
The check’s watermark may have been washed off or lightened.
The Postal Investigation Service offers rewards up to $10,000 for information and services leading to the arrest and conviction of any person for mail theft. The crime is a federal felony and punishable by a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment of up to five year, or both.
The problem has grown so severe that many local and federal authorities have formed task forces around the country, with agents from the Postal Inspection Service, U.S. attorney's office, local police forgery units, FBI and Secret Service.
The Sun-Sentinel reported that Postal investigators, working with police in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, busted one of the largest check-washing gangs in South Florida history. During a 14-month period, the gang stole the mail of 177 people, separated the checks, changed the amounts and assumed fake names to cash them for a total of $650,000 at 27 banks and credit unions. The average doctored check was $490, once altering a $2,000 check and cashing it for $24,000.
Investigators, the Sun-Sentinel reported, are in the process of arresting 110 people, mostly from Hialeah and Miami Springs. Arrest warrants were issued for 11 more gang members. All will be charged with at least two state felonies: grand theft and uttering a forged statement.
In another case, a California woman was arrested on charges she pilfered personal checks from mailboxes and altered the checks with chemicals to cash them. Anita Okelberry, 35, who is from Oakland but has no local address, faces eight counts each of forgery, completing a forged instrument and grand theft. She is accused of stealing checks from mailboxes in Hudson and New Port Richey, washing the ink off with chemicals and filling in her own name and inflated dollar amounts.
You can take the following steps to protect yourself from being a victim:
bullet Don't put bills in a residential mailbox. The red flag sticking up is like an invitation to a thief.
bullet Ask your bank if you can pick up new books of checks. Or ask the bank to have a parcel delivery service deliver them.
bullet Shred canceled checks. If you need to save them, make sure the canceled checks are in a secured area, such as a bank lock box, or a wall safe. Don't throw them in the trash.
bullet Check bank statements immediately after receiving them. If you fail to report check fraud within 30 days of receiving your monthly statement, the bank does not have to reimburse your loss (UCC Code 4-406).
bullet Don't discard credit card records or bills with household trash.
bullet Use an ordinary old fashion ink pen to write your checks. Use a durable color ink. If you want to use a ballpoint pen, use a Bic pen with black ink.
bullet For additional security, people should also receive their pay or Social Security benefits by Direct Deposit to eliminate the risk of checks being stolen." Employees can ask their employers about the availability of Direct Deposit.
There are also other check security features that can be used to protect against check fraud:
Most of the check manufactures have enhanced their check stock to combat Counterfeiting and Check Washing. This is the main reason that you should always purchase your supply of business and personal checks from a company who has implemented security enhanced check stock.
Even some of the mail-order companies have included some security measures in their check stock. Before you purchase your new supply, ask what security measures have been adopted into their check stock, both overt (visible) and covert (hidden) characteristics to alert check handlers and to discourage the check fraud artists. You want to protect your documents against chemical alteration, erasure, toner removal, photocopying, and counterfeiting.
Check manufactures help deter check fraud by making checks difficult to copy, alter, or counterfeit by using some or all of the following security measures:
bullet Watermarks. Watermarks are made by applying different degrees of pressure during the paper manufacturing process. Most watermarks make subtle designs on the front and back of the checks. These marks are not easily visible and can only be seen when they are held up to light at a 45-degree angle. This offers protection from counterfeiting because copiers and scanners generally cannot accurately copy watermarks.
bullet Copy Void Pantograph. Pantographs are patented designs in the background pattern of checks. When photocopied, the pattern changes and the word "VOID" appears, making the copy nonnegotiable.
bullet Chemical Voids. Chemical voids involve treating check paper in a manner that is not detectable until eradicator chemicals contact the paper. When chemicals are applied, the treatment causes the word "VOID" to appear, making the item nonnegotiable. Checks treated with chemical voids cannot be altered without detection.
bullet High-Resolution Micro Printing. High-resolution micro printing is very small printing, typically used for the signature line of a check or around the border in what appears to be a line or pattern to the naked eye. When magnified, the line or pattern contains a series of words that run together or become totally illegible if the check has been photocopied or scanned with a desktop scanner.
bullet Three-dimensional Reflective Holostripe. A holostripe is a metallic stripe that contains one or more holograms, similar to those on credit cards. These items are difficult to forge, scan, or reproduce because they are produced by a sophisticated, laser-based etching process.
bullet Security Inks. Security inks react with common eradication chemicals. These inks reduce a forger's ability to modify the printed dollar amount or alter the designated payee because when solvents are applied, a chemical reaction with the security ink distorts the appearance of the check. This makes such items very difficult to alter without detection. The chemical reactants produce permanent stains when bleach or solvents are used to alter the check document.
bullet INVISIBLE FIBERS (Covert). Embedded in the sheet, fibers are visible only under ultraviolet light, and are extremely difficult to duplicate.
bullet VISIBLE FIBERS (Overt). Fibers are visible in ordinary light and arranged on both sides of the check. These fibers will extend from a torn edge to verify its authenticity.