Mail theft and check fraud are on the rise. Here’s how to stay safe
Jan 16, 2023
4 min read
What we'll cover
How thieves are targeting mail to steal money and information
How check washing works and methods for prevention
Best practices for smarter, more secure banking
With so much of our financial lives happening online now, enhanced digital security is something that’s incredibly important. But what about security for non-digital payment options, like checks?
Whether you’re sending a loved one money for their birthday or paying a bill, it can be easier to write a check and put it in the mail. It seems simple and safe enough, but what if that mail gets stolen? In fact, there’s a growing number of cases of mail theft across the country and many of those criminals are looking for checks to intercept.
Though frightening, there are steps you can take to help protect your assets. Learn more about how mail theft works, what to look out for and how you protect yourself from falling victim to thieves.
Understanding mail theft
Most mail and packages arrive at their intended destinations without a problem. But thousands of scammers are arrested each year for targeting mail, and intercepting checks or other confidential financial documents in transit, or for taking assets right out of mailboxes (a practice known as mailbox fishing).
These criminals then tamper with a check, steal a pre-activated credit card or use personal information to commit identity theft.
What does check washing mean?
Check washing refers to scams where thieves use chemicals to remove ink from a check, then change the names and/or dollar amounts to fraudulently deposit the check. And while it might sound far-fetched, more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks are recovered by postal inspectors each year. There are also cases where criminals have used a copier or scanner to print false copies of the check to get even more money.
How can I protect myself from check washing?
Use a black gel pen when writing checks. Certain types are resistant to chemical stripping, with pigments that seep into the fibers of the check’s paper.
Once cashed, review images of checks via your online bank account to ensure they appear as you wrote them, with no changed names or dollar amounts. If you notice anything fishy, notify your bank immediately.
Finally, consider using one of the numerous tools available for making and receiving digital payments.
Best practices for using mail for banking activities
There may be instances where you need to mail a check. Follow these tips to make sure it’s delivered safely.
Track your mail
Mail tracking services allow you to monitor the status of a piece of mail and receive a confirmation when it arrives at its destination. You’ll have to pay extra at the post office for this service, but the peace of mind it provides is priceless.
Mail directly from the post office
Rather than leaving a check sitting in a mailbox — either your own or a public drop box — where it could be vulnerable, take it to a post office location. The mail slots inside are virtually impossible for a thief to get into.
Collect your mail quickly
Never leave a check, credit card or other financial documents in your mailbox overnight. Pick it up as soon as possible if you know it’s coming. If you know you’ll be away from home for more than a day, ask a trusted friend or neighbor to pick up your mail for you. The USPS also offers Informed Delivery, a service that sends a preview of your mail and packages directly to your email, so you know what to expect, and when.
Notify the post office of relocation or travel
If you move, inform the post office and anyone you do business with of your new address right away. Plan ahead as much as possible, so you can avoid having checks mailed to your former address close to your move date. Likewise, request ahold on your mail when on vacation or away on business. The USPS offers this service for free; all you have to do is submit contact details and the dates you leave and return, and your mail will be held for the duration of your trip.
Check mail pick-up times
If you use a public drop location to send mail, see what the daily pick-up times are (you can find these posted online and on the mailbox itself), and put checks and other sensitive mail items in the drop box as close to that time as possible.
Request signature upon receipt
Like mail tracking, you can make a signature request at a physical post office location. This is done to ensure high-value items aren’t left out as a target for criminals.
Pay close attention to delivery timelines
In the event you are expecting and did not receive a check or other valuable mail, contact the issuing agency immediately. They may reissue the check or have certain sets of protocols to follow for your safety.
Quick Tip: If you are an Ally customer who ordered a new debit card and you have not received it in 10 business days, give us call to determine next steps.
Don't send cash
Cash is an easy target for mail thieves. And once they get a hold of it, it’s nearly impossible to track down. Writing a check or sending the money another way is the best way to mitigate this risk.
Alternative options for safe banking
Fortunately, the digital world has made banking simpler and safer. Most utilities, auto and mortgage lenders, and other organizations offer online or automated bill payments. As mentioned above, you can also use a digital payment platform like Zelle or PayPal for transactions instead of sending a check or cash. For high-dollar payments, consider alternative methods like ACH or wire transfer. Your online banking site should offer these services.
Knowledge is power. Read about common scams and how to protect yourself and your valuable assets in the Ally security resources.