Check Fraud Is on the Rise — Here’s What You Need to Know


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Some stolen checks are being sold for as much as $650 apiece.

As if we needed another thing to worry about, an age-old trick to swindle money out of Americans is on the rise again. Criminals are increasingly targeting mailboxes to illegally pilfer other people’s checks, and the U.S. Postal Service is taking notice. 

“Every day, the U.S. Postal Service safely and efficiently delivers millions of checks, money orders, credit cards and merchandise,” the agency said in a statement this month. “Unfortunately, such items are also attractive to thieves, and that is why postal Inspectors across the country are at work to protect your mail.” 

Here’s a breakdown of this disconcerting new trend, what federal officials are doing about it, and an unexpected way you can prevent it from happening to you. 

How does check fraud work?

Check fraud is nothing new — criminals have been turning to this nefarious activity since the 1800s. But the number of doctored checks currently winding up on the dark web adds a modern twist, according to reporting from David Maimon, the director of Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group at Georgia State University, which tracks and works in preventing cybercrime.

So how exactly do these fraudsters pull it off? Some may simply go to your mailbox and either fish out or just remove the mail you left behind for your postal worker to pick up. Others might go to those blue USPS boxes along the street with keys that they were able to steal or copy from post office officials.

Once they have someone’s check in hand, they typically use nail polish remover to erase the original payee’s name and the amount displayed on the check. Then they’ll replace those details with ones of their choosing, including an amount that’s usually a lot higher than was previously listed. They also might upload a picture of a “clean” version of the check to sell on online fraud marketplaces, where they’re priced anywhere from $250 to $650 apiece. And in worst-case scenarios, criminals use the checks to steal the victim’s identity and apply for loans or even access their bank account.

How common is check fraud?

Though this kind of theft goes back more than a hundred years, there was a serious uptick in fraud during the early days of the pandemic, and the trend has continued since then. Last year, Georgia State University’s Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group found an average of 1,325 stolen checks being sold every week in October 2021, a marked increase from 634 per week in September and 409 in August.

But Maimon says the group only focused its research on 60 markets out of likely thousands, so the figures “only represent a small fraction of the number of checks actually being stolen and sold.” Still, some states were bigger targets than others — for instance, most of the stolen checks came out of New York, Florida, California, and Texas.  

To make matters worse, check fraud’s part of a larger problem: There were 33,000 incidents involving mail carrier robberies and mail theft, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), which is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service.

What’s being done about it?

The U.S. Postal Service has been putting warning signs on blue mailboxes that have become common targets for thieves. The USPS has also made 1,511 arrests for mail theft in 2021, which some critics argue marks a small dent in what’s considered a systemic issue.

Despite its efforts, the agency remains in the hot seat over its handling of the growing trend. While criminals can use the checks to steal the victims’ identities, banks usually weather the financial burden of these attacks and reimburse any targeted accounts. As this fraud has become widespread, many financial institutions (especially small ones) are struggling to collect on bad checks from other banks, according to a report from the newspaper American Banker. 

“It’s really frustrating that banks are being held liable because the Postal Service can’t secure the mail,” the American Bankers Association’s Paul Benda told Axios. 

How you can protect yourself

One of the easiest ways to guard yourself against mail fraud is to write your checks in a gel ink pen (the same ones you might’ve collected as a kid). While regular ballpoint ink can be washed off of paper relatively easily, the ink from a gel pen fully permeates the paper, making it extremely difficult to alter. 

Some experts also recommend avoiding paper checks altogether and instead opting for online bill-pay services like Venmo or PayPal. But if you want to stick to your old-school ways (or you’re required to send a physical check), Maimon recommends dropping off mail in-person. 

“I think that what folks want to do if they want to prevent this crime from happening and prevent themselves from falling victim to this crime is simply go to the nearest post office store and simply give their mail to the vendor over there,” he told NPR.