THE WOODLANDS, Texas – Some Woodlands residents have been victims of check “washing” and have had their bank accounts wiped in seconds. This is something Houston area banks say is becoming more common, especially this time of year.
“I came to mail a couple of birthday cards,” explained neighbor Georgann Coe.
She was stopping on her lunch break to mail a check and some cash to her grandkids.
Judy Mason and Christopher Jannes are warning others, including Coe, to be extra cautious when mailing money in these blue mailboxes, especially this time of year.
“Oh my gosh, I just barely fell out of the chair. And I called my husband, and he was driving. He said he nearly had a wreck when I told him,” said Mason.
Judy mailed a check for her annual magazine subscription last week. A few days later when she checked her account, she realized that same check was cashed for $12,000.
“Everything on the check had been changed, including the date,” she said.
Jannes says he had two checks stolen and one was cashed for nearly $8,300.
“You’ve got all these automatic payments like gym or money from health insurance and all those things get messed up,” explained Jannes. “Your direct deposit is also affected so you have to get that changed. It creates a lot of chaos.”
He says he got the issue resolved pretty quickly but for others that may not be the case.
“If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, you can’t afford to have someone swipe $8,800,” noted Jannes. “When the economy starts to get bad people, become more creative criminals.”
True Brown is the Director of Financial Crimes for Simmons Bank. They have branches in The Woodlands and across the state. He says it has become an epidemic in recent months.
“This is organized criminal activity at a large scale,” explained Brown. “The last three or four months, it has really escalated, and it has become a very significant and serious problem for institutions.”
He even explained that these checks may be stolen in one place and cashed in another. He said that sometimes they are even sold online.
And although it’s happening nationwide, it’s becoming a far too common occurrence here in The Woodlands.
“When I talked to the bank around the corner, she said recently she had two others mailed from this same box and cashed for small amounts,” explained Mason. “And one was charged for $4,000 and another for $4,000 like mine.”
So after hearing about what Jannes and Mason went through, Georgann is now thinking twice before making a trip to the mailbox.
“I will probably put it by the office now,” says Coe.
Brown says, “we do have tools in place that will identify things that are out of pattern for a person or business but it’s a partnership between banks and customers to try and protect the accounts. The customers have to do their part by receiving their records on a timely basis.”
How to prevent check washing and check fraud
There are a few things you can do to help prevent it from happening to you:
- Pay electronically through a bank or app. This can be a payment system through the bank, like Zelle, or with a payment app like Venmo or PayPal.
- Use a black gel pen. It’s harder to lift off paper. Blue ballpoint is the easiest ink to remove from checks. Or use a pen that contains indelible ink
- Double-check images of checks from your account. Since most banks post images of the checks to your account, go back and make sure nothing was changed on your checks. Check to see if all of the checks that were cashed were legitimate.
- Don’t put your mail in an unsecured mailbox. USPS suggests dropping the mail off at a box inside at the post office. Don’t let it sit in an unsecured box overnight.
What to do if you are a victim of check fraud or check washing?
If you have a problem with check fraud and you need help with your bank, you can file complaints with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency at www.helpwithmybank.gov. This agency regulates all federal banking institutions.
You should also file a complaint with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau at https://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint/.
If your bank is a state bank, they are regulated by the Texas Department of Banking; and you should file your complaint here. The U.S. Postal Service offers up to ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for information that leads to the arrest and conviction for theft of U.S. Mail. This reward is applicable on those who stole U.S. Mail or are in possession of stolen U.S. Mail.
In addition to the Postal Service’s reward on mail thieves, robbery of an on-duty postal employee carries a reward of up to fifty thousand dollars ($50,000). Tips can be made anonymously via 877-876-2455, or postalinspectors.uspis.gov. If customers do not report confirmed mail theft to postal inspectors, especially when financial losses occur, they are simply allowing criminals to take advantage of them. Even if the theft is not discovered until weeks after the incident, notifying federal law enforcement can still help bring these thieves to justice.