Check Washing: What is it?

With automatic bill pay connected right to many checking accounts and the rise of money transfer apps such as Venmo, the 2019 Federal Reserve Payments Study shows the average consumer’s check payments are rapidly declining – and perhaps with good reason.

According to the United States Postal Service as of May 2019, postal inspectors recover more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks and money orders every year. Checks are still used to pay the landlord, send money to family, to make large purchases and for business transactions.

If you still find yourself writing checks every now and then, take some caution: Scams such as check washing still pose a threat and make an easy way for scammers to get away with a decent amount of cash.

Check washing occurs when snatchers erase the ink on a check using chemicals found in common household cleaning products and then “reuse” the checks by rewriting them to themselves. Then when you check your bank statement, you see that your check went through and the amount matches. Weeks may pass before you realize your money never went where you thought it did.

Don’t fall victim to a check washing scam. If you do write a check, heed the following advice:
• Don’t put bills in a residential mailbox. The red flag sticking up is like an invitation to a thief. If you have to leave outgoing mail in your box, do it immediately before the letter carrier comes, and don’t raise the mailbox flag. Better yet, take your mail to work, drop it in a collection box, hand it to a letter carrier or take it directly to the post office.
• Shred or burn 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.
• Check bank statements and your online bank account regularly. If you fail to report check fraud within 30 days of receiving your monthly statement, the bank does not have to reimburse your loss.
• Print a return address on an envelope. A signature can be traced, duplicated or forged.
• Don’t discard credit card records or bills with household trash.

The main problem with the check washing scam is creating a truly blank check. The ink contained in a standard blue ballpoint pen is easily removed with acetone, but black ink can be problematic. Experts say gel pens with black ink provide the best protection against check washing, since the gel ink resists chemical stripping and contains pigments which permeate the fibers of the check itself.

Check washing is not profitable for the con artist if the checks look altered or bleached. One way to protect yourself against the threat of check washing is to switch from blue to black ink when writing checks, and to use a gel pen whenever possible.

Sources: National Check Fraud Center, Federal Reserve, United States Postal Service