Days after depositing his $1,500 monthly mortgage check in the blue mailbox by the Kohl’s off of Ritchie Highway, Ron Mox was notified that his mortgage was not paid. Next, he received a call from his bank. The check was stolen, and he would have to change all his account passwords.
“I was told they are using fly traps and pulling out the envelopes and changing the name to theirs,” he said, adding that he has not yet been reimbursed and had to change all his passwords.
Mox was the victim of a check-washing scheme that has become more widespread. Checks are being stolen and cashed from United States Postal Service mailboxes and personal mailboxes. In addition to fly traps, stolen keys are being used by some criminals to access post office boxes.
Officers from the Anne Arundel County Eastern District Police Station said approximately 20 cases have been reported in Severna Park and Pasadena over the past six months.
The United States Postal Inspection Service recovers more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks and money orders nationally each year.
In a video filmed in 2017, U.S. Postal Inspector Troy Sabby explained how the crime works.
“You get a chemical,” he said. “You put it in a little wash bin. You can put a check in there and the handwritten ink will come off and you can therefore use that check and put whatever you want in there.”
In one case Sabby used as an example, 10 con men were making checks out to fake names and producing phony IDs.
“These people were able to get a hold of blank temporary driver's license copies and so then they were able to put whatever information they needed on there, and they're very good at it,” he said. “It's a fairly simple crime for the suspect to do and it's a very hard crime for the victims to wash what they did to them away.”
Another Severna Park resident, who asked to remain anonymous, had $5,000 stolen.
“In my instance, the check that was washed was cashed through a mobile app into a bank account,” the man said. “This may or may not be considered wire fraud since the deposit was made to a bank electronically. In any case, these crimes are not just a theft that involves the U.S. mail but have broader implications that could justify a multi-agency task force to work these crimes.”
The FBI handles white-collar crimes that “can destroy a company, wipe out a person's life savings, cost investors billions of dollars, and erode the public's trust in institutions,” according to its website. One of the FBI’s partners is the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Both the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service could not be reached for this story.
The Anne Arundel County Police Department shared a few measures people can take to avoid becoming victims of check-washing fraud.
“I encourage community members to help prevent this activity from happening by switching to online banking,” said Eastern District Detective Sergeant Bryan Isaac. “This eliminates the ability of a thief to cash or counterfeit your paper check or to use your personal information for other ill-intentioned purposes.”
If electronic banking is not an option, Isaac said, the following tips may help prevent someone from becoming a victim of fraud. Deposit mail before the last pickup at a local post office. Retrieve mail frequently. Never leave mail in a mailbox overnight. Before going on vacation, request to have mail held at the post office or have it picked up by a friend or neighbor.
“And here’s a tip for when you’re writing checks: use a gel pen,” U.S. Postal Inspector Andrea Avery said in another informational video. “They have ink characteristics that are difficult to remove from checks.”
Mox and other Severna Park residents wish they had known about the spike in fraud sooner, but they want their Anne Arundel County neighbors to be educated so they don’t suffer from the same scam.
“The world right now is really cruel,” Mox said.
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