What Is Check Washing?
Criminals use the process of check washing to “wash off” the ink on a check and make the check out to themselves once it’s dry.
Personal and pre-printed checks carry the highest risk of check washing. Scammers have learned what envelopes look like with these checks inside them, and steal them out of outgoing mail.
They then use drugstore solvents — like acetone, bleach, and high-performance erasers — to wash away handwritten or typed ink. From there, they use Photoshop to adjust the payee name and amount so that they match the font or handwritten numbers and letters.
To conceal their identities, some crooks use fake IDs or enlist accomplices called “walkers” who cash fake checks on their behalf. Such walkers are easily located because they peddle their services on messaging apps like Telegram [*].
How To Prevent Check Washing (8 Ways)
Check washing may appear outdated as a type of fraud, but this scam has made a strong resurgence. Criminals caught on to security gaps in United States Postal Service (USPS) infrastructure during the pandemic. They've been able to identify and retrieve relief checks from mailboxes which they can wash.
Thieves even painstakingly build legitimate-looking transaction histories over time. And since most front-line banking staff aren’t trained to detect fraud, check washing continues to plague consumers.
But the surge in check washing fraud doesn’t have to affect you. Here are eight ways to prevent falling for these scams:
1. Keep your mail safe
It’s convenient to leave mail in your mailbox for carriers to pick up. But scammers canvas neighborhoods — looking for outgoing checks in personal mailboxes, and prying open post office collection boxes at night after the last pickup.
- To avoid mail theft, drop off your checks in a collection box at work — or hand mail to your carrier at home or at your local post office.
- If you are on vacation or out of town for an extended period, consider pausing or rerouting your mail so that it doesn’t pile up in your mailbox. The USPS will hold your mail for up to 30 days.
- Should you plan to move for a period longer than 30 days (up to a year), you can simply request a temporary change of address to have your mail forwarded to your new location.
You can make both requests up to 30 days in advance on the USPS website [*]. Both services require a USPS login and password and will verify your identity to complete the request.
2. Pay your bills online
The easiest way to prevent check washing is to stop mailing checks. Most companies offer online bank statements and bill pay. Going paperless not only prevents check interception; it can also help you avoid late fees or overdraft charges by paying your recurring bills at the same time every month.
Be sure to reconcile your online bank statements every 30 days, and report any inconsistencies to customer support.
3. Deposit checks remotely by using your phone
The longer a check remains in your mailbox, the higher the risk of it being stolen and manipulated. But for many people, a trip to the bank is a hassle. Depositing your checks remotely saves you time and keeps your check out of scammers’ reach.
- Popular banks — like Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo — all offer remote deposit [*,*,*]. Once you endorse your check, submit photos of the front and back through your mobile banking app. When the check clears, you’ll see the transaction in your recent activity, along with the corresponding check images.
- If it takes a while for a check to clear, or if you start receiving overdue notices, contact your bank; these may be signs of identity theft.
- On that note, it’s worth exploring other online banking security features offered by your bank such as alerts, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and positive pay — a system designed to prevent check fraud [*]. With positive pay enabled, your bank matches a check’s date, check number, dollar amount, and account number to a list of expected transactions that you provide to them.
Bank of America’s positive pay feature presents you with checks that don’t reconcile, giving you the option to approve or deny the transaction or request further investigation [*].
4. Monitor your checks and checking accounts
Scammers rummage through garbage to find pre-approved credit notices, unused checks, and other sensitive documents that they can use to steal your money or your identity.
- Always shred canceled checks, free credit reports, credit card or bank statements, and any paperwork containing your Social Security number (SSN) or other personally identifiable information (PII).
- Make a point to inventory your check supply every month, and report any missing checks to your bank immediately.
- Even one stolen check can be dangerous — scammers can make multiple copies and sell them on the Dark Web. If fraudsters get a hold of your driver’s license, they can fill out the check information, forge your signature, and drain your bank account.
If you happen to know the missing check numbers, ask your bank to put a stop on each one, and freeze your account until you can open a new one and get fresh checks.
5. Use indelible black gel ink pens
Last year, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) advised consumers to sign their checks with indelible black gel ink [*]. Unlike the black or blue dye in ballpoint pens, the BBB found that long-lasting, gel-based ink doesn’t come off with household cleaning products. You can find black gel pens on Amazon, at Walmart, or at office supply stores.
Another way to protect yourself is to avoid using counter checks; these are spare checks that the bank keeps on hand [*]. These checks are blank — so you have to fill out the information by hand, and may not have an indelible black gel ink pen at your disposal.
Worse, counter checks have limited security features. If they get washed, you may not be able to get your money back.
6. Opt for checks with one or more security features
Over the years, financial institutions have added special protections to checks that make them harder to forge. To minimize your susceptibility to scams, work with a bank that has at least one of the following check security features in place:
- High-resolution micro printing. The font around the border of checks is so small that it becomes near-illegible when copied [*]. Microprinting is tough for scammers to notice and replicate.
- Security inks. When a check with security ink is treated with chemicals, it leaves behind permanent stains. On U.S. Treasury checks, for example, the Treasury seal runs and turns red as soon as it interacts with moisture [*].
- Chemical voids. Exposure to washing chemicals like nail polish remover produces the word “VOID” on a check. Banks may also provide copy void pantographs, which display “VOID” when a check is copied.
- Watermarks. These designs only appear when checks are tilted at a certain angle or are viewed under a light. They don’t show up on scans or copies, making it harder for scammers to reproduce.
- Visible and invisible fibers. Visible fibers are embedded in the front and back of a check and can be seen with the naked eye. Invisible fibers may only materialize under special lighting. Intuit checks, for instance, have invisible fibers that can only be seen under ultraviolet (UV) light [*].
- Three-dimensional reflective holostripes. Some checks contain metal strips, like a passport or driver's license, that make them harder to falsify.
7. Learn how to identify altered checks
Knowing what modified and counterfeit checks look like can help you detect and report suspicious activity. When you get a check in the mail, do the following:
- Confirm that the check is from a legitimate bank. Do a Google search of the bank, and confirm that the headquarters address matches the payer address on both the check and the check’s postmark.
For extra assurance, call the bank and ask them to verify the check date, number, amount, and payee. You can also try to search for the bank on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) BankFind database.
- Examine the check’s security features. To tell if a check is fake, hold it up to the light and look for spots, discolorations, and warped paper. Be especially wary of checks that depict faint signs of the word “VOID” on them.
- Identify any overpayments. If you’re not expecting a check, or receive one made out for more money than you expected, chances are that you’re the target of a bank scam.
Fraudsters ask you to return the overpayment through gift cards, payment apps like Zelle and Venmo, or other untraceable payment methods. Once the check bounces, you’ve lost anything you paid them in addition to the value of the check.
8. Report suspicious incidents on time
If you’re the victim of check washing, contact your bank immediately. Generally, you have up to 30 days from the statement date to report unauthorized transactions; but time periods vary by bank and state [*].
Call the bank’s official customer support number, and explain what happened to a representative.
- If you’ve been the victim of identity theft, the bank will likely suggest closing your account and freezing your credit so that no one can open new lines of credit in your name.
Per the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), banks and credit unions have 10 business days to investigate your issue. If the impacted account is new, they are granted 20 business days [*].
- While you’re waiting for the bank to process your report, also file a police report. Bring evidence, such as your bank statement, check images, and any other communications that you may have had with a scammer.
- The more details you provide, the easier it will be for them to investigate and prosecute. An official police report will also validate your check fraud and identity theft claims, improving your chances of recovering lost funds.
- Finally, if applicable, report mail theft to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS). You can start the process on their website or by calling 1-877-876-2455.
Be prepared to enter your mail tracking number, and when and where your mail should’ve been delivered. Filing a report helps the USPIS create and implement additional guardrails to keep everyone’s mail safe.
Who Is Liable for a Washed Check?
In most cases, the bank that first deposits a washed check is liable for it, especially if later investigations find checks to be altered in some way [*].
However, if a bank accepts an altered check in good faith and your actions contributed to the forgery, you can be held partially responsible [*]. Even if you unknowingly deposit a fake check, you could be liable.
The bottom line is that it’s your duty to review your checks and bank statements and notify the bank of any discrepancies [*].
While there is usually a 30-day grace period for reporting issues, informing the bank as soon as possible decreases the chances that you’re held liable.
Of course, staying on top of your financial accounts is easier said than done. Aura’s identity theft protection solution automatically monitors your bank, credit, and personal information for fraud — alerting you quickly to any suspicious activity in near-real time.