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Check Washing Fraud Is a Growing Concern

Here are several tips to reduce your chances of being swindled

By Aileen Weintraub

My plane had just touched down in New York City when I received a frantic text from my husband asking if I had recently written a check for $4,501. I had been out of the country and our checkbook was on my desk at home, so I suspect he already knew the answer. We had just become victims of a growing problem: Check washing fraud.

A woman putting mail in her mailbox. Next Avenue, check washing fraud
The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, an office within the U.S. Treasury, says check fraud is surging, with banks reporting 680,000 incidents in 2022, double the previous year.   |  Credit: Getty

Check washing is when scammers steal a check, often out of the mail, use chemicals to wash off the ink and then change both the name of the person it is made out to and the dollar amount before depositing it into a fake bank account.

Older Adults Are Most at Risk

As technology changes, banks are finding it difficult to keep up with security, and check washing is now easier than ever. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, an office within the U.S. Treasury, says check fraud is surging, with banks reporting 680,000 incidents in 2022, double the previous year. Postal Service inspectors recover more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks and money orders annually.

"When someone has a copy of your check, they have your address, ZIP code, city where you live, routing number and checking account number."

Older people are the most at risk for this type of fraud, mainly because three-quarters of retirement-aged people still use paper checks. "Many older adults feel intimidated using electronics to pay their bills," says Mary-Jo Kranacher, professor of fraud examination at York College, a part of the City University of New York. "Instead, most prefer to do it 'the old fashion way,' using a check and the U.S. Postal Service. However, this potentially exposes them to nefarious intentions."

Older people also tend to have more money than other demographics, making them tempting targets for scammers.

My husband and I immediately locked down our bank accounts and filed a police report. But that didn't shake the feeling that we had been violated. Not only had someone washed our check, but they'd managed to hack into our bank's automated system, transferring our money from our savings account to our checking account to make sure the check would be covered once they deposited it into a fake online bank account.

Why Check Washing Is So Easy

When I asked the bank manager how this could happen, I was told the hacker simply needed some basic information about me along with my checking account number to make an internal transfer. I was shocked it could be so simple.

With Google making it a snap to find personal information online, scam artists have a wealth of information at their fingertips. They may send you what looks like a legitimate email instructing you to click on a link that gives them access to your computer or coerce you into disclosing confidential information such as a password or the last four digits of your Social Security number.

Or they may obtain one of your checks by stealing it from a mailbox or a blue Postal Service collection box. "When someone has a copy of your check, they have your address, ZIP code, city where you live, routing number and checking account number," Kelly Richmond Pope, a professor of forensic accounting at DePaul University in Chicago, says.

"Many older adults feel intimidated using electronics to pay their bills."

"Now they can go online and find your birthday, see how many kids you have, and even where you've vacationed or had dinner in the last few months," adds Pope, who also is the author of "Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories and Secrets from the Trillion-Dollar Fraud Industry."

The scammer then takes all that information and calls your bank, which may ask three automated questions before granting access. Let's say the scammer has enough information to answer two of those three questions. They hang up and call back, trying repeatedly until they have successfully impersonated you. This is exactly what happened to me and my husband.

How You Can Protect Yourself

People have gotten out of the habit of balancing their checkbooks, which makes it easier for scammers to steal money without you noticing. Pope suggests signing on to your bank's website at the end of every week to check account balances and transactions to make sure there hasn't been any fraudulent activity.

"Start keeping records," she says. Keep track of the charities you donate to and any other places you regularly write checks. She also recommends using your credit cards instead of checks where possible because credit cards tend to flag anomalies much faster than most banks.

Keep records. Keep them out of sight.

Secure your documents, such as statements and anything with your checking account information. Do not leave them in plain sight atop your desk, as I did. Many older people have workers in and out of their homes, including cleaning people, maintenance workers and health care aides. We can be trusting but still mindful of protecting our personal information.

Pope recommends introducing yourself to your banker and asking if you may qualify for a personalized banking program. You may also consider scheduling quarterly meetings with your banker to go over your account information and discuss fraud protection.

Kranacher recommends switching to online banking to limit the number of checks you write. However, if you still need to write an occasional check, "use a gel pen because this type of ink soaks into the fabric and is more difficult to wash," she says.


Kranacher also recommends bringing your mail directly to the post office so there is less risk of interception by a fraudster. Finally, arrange for your Social Security checks to be deposited directly into your bank account.

What To Do If It Happens to You

It took days to meticulously go over our funds to make sure nothing else was missing, and we couldn't help feeling that somehow this was our fault. Pope says this is pretty common and "nothing to be embarrassed about."

"Banks will usually replace money that is stolen as long as it's reported within 30 days."

"If it's happening to you, it's happening to others," she explains, "and the only way to stop it is for people to share their stories."

The police investigator opened a case and told us they would subpoena the fraud department at the bank for access to our accounts and the report. They also said they would interview the construction workers who had been in our house. Months later this still hasn't occurred and I've lost any hope the hacker will be caught.

While waiting for an answer from the fraud department or the police, I began sleuthing on my own. Matching the loops on my husband's signature for all the checks he had written in the last year, I was able to trace the washed check back to a real check he had written to the Department of Motor Vehicles in New York.

The Penny Drops

It all began to fall into place. Of course! Someone at the DMV would have access to our confidential information, and there was no way to trace it back to a particular person. Knowing this, we immediately called the three big credit agencies — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — to freeze our credit, something Kranacher also recommends.

Because we acted quickly, our bank refunded the money we'd lost. "Banks will usually replace money that is stolen as long as it's reported within 30 days," says Kranacher. This is another reason why it's important to keep a close eye on your account activity.

While technology has made our lives easier in many ways, it comes with great risks. We all need to stay vigilant, especially in matters of money. My husband and I have learned our lesson. We'll review our statements much more often — and we won't be writing any more checks.

Aileen Weintraub 

Aileen Weintraub is a health and lifestyle editor and the author of “Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir.”
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