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How to protect yourself from check-washing schemes

Thieves are breaking into U.S. Postal Drop Boxes, stealing checks, then "washing" the contents and replacing with fake information, cashing them and making big money

ATLANTA — Every day, hundreds of thousands of metro Atlantans write checks and drop them in the U.S. mail.

But, we're seeing a growing number fall victim to theft and forgery.

It’s called check washing.

You put a check in a street-side postal drop box to pay a bill or give to a charity, but when you get your bank statement, you find out that same check has been totally altered and made out to someone you never heard of.

Your original check -- stolen from a postal box -- was washed out with chemicals and changed.

Atlanta postal inspectors say it is happening with increased frequency.

“When they steal a check, they actually use different solvents and put different names on there, then go to a check-cashing facility," explained Atlanta Postal Inspector Kemie Green.

Atlanta police say the theft starts even before the thieves get to your envelope.

“What we've been seeing a lot of are keys being stolen from postal carriers, and they are being robbed of these keys and getting into the boxes anywhere,” said Lt. Rebecca Bandy, Commander of the Atlanta Police Larceny and Theft Unit.

But there's another way that’s more brazen: “They are using tools to pry (the mailboxes) open and also, they could be using fishing devices, where they place sticky substances with snorkels on top of the boxes in order to fish out the mail," Inspector Green described.

Combating the fishing scheme, Green says most metro drop boxes are now being equipped with anti-fishing devices so the mail cannot be lifted out.

Atlanta police say they are having success in catching these mailbox thieves. If convicted on felony charges, they can face up to 10 years in prison.

While law enforcement races to track down and prosecute the thieves, it is the victims who face a long road of paperwork.

The Georgia Bankers Association urges check-washing victims to frequently monitor account transactions, set up fraud alerts and switch all direct deposits to the new account number. 

Bankers Association Chief Operating Officer David Oliver adds: “Walk through all of your direct deposits -- like your employer, Social Security, Medicare -- and any automatic payments that you may have that would come out of that account that was closed.”

Added to that are additional safeguards you should consider to protect your checks from being stolen and washed.

How to prevent check washing, theft from postal boxes

Mail your checks directly from the Post Office, but if you elect to use a drop box, make sure that you place your check into that box before the scheduled pickup time that is listed on the front.

Don't ever leave the check in the box overnight, giving thieves ample time to fish out your mail. 

And there is yet another way to avoid the hassles: think electronic and try to pay online.

More resources at 11Alive.com/seniorsource.

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