Thousands of dollars taken from Baton Rouge bank accounts following a wave of check washing | Crime/Police

It was Christmas Eve when Nanette stopped at the post office on Millwood Drive to drop eight cheques, including several for charity and one to pay her property tax, into the blue mailbox just outside building entrance exterior.

Two weeks later, she received a call from Regions Bank’s fraud department: someone had taken two of the checks, which she had originally written for $200 and $100, and attempted to cash them for $350. and $4,000, respectively.

The check for the smallest amount was made out to a man and the one for the largest amount was made out to a woman.

“They used some kind of substance to erase my handwriting and even changed my signature to a funny way of writing my name,” said Nanette, who requested that only her first name be used. The lawyer does not print the names of victims of crime. without their permission. “It was just weird. They didn’t even try to copy my handwriting.”

Nanette, who noted that the other six checks she deposited were never cashed, is one of many Baton Rouge residents to have fallen victim to such a scheme in recent weeks.

A tactic known as “check washing”, would-be fraudsters wipe the ink from a check using chemicals commonly found in household cleaning products and rewrite it themselves, sometimes also altering the dollar amount. Unless victims receive a call from their bank alerting them to fraud, they often don’t realize they have been targeted until the money is withdrawn from their account.

The problem is not uncommon. According to the National Check Fraud Center, approximately $815 million is stolen in the United States through washed checks each year.

“Of course people have stolen credit card numbers in the past, but I’ve never seen anyone try to wash one of my checks,” said another victim who only wanted to be identified as Don. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

Like Nanette, Don also deposited a check, this one addressed to his credit card company, at the Millwood Road post office on December 29.

Two days later, he received a call from Regions Bank asking if he had written a check for $5,100 to a man whose name he did not recognize.

He immediately notified the bank of the fraud, closed his account, and filed a report with the Baton Rouge Police Department.

“I’m 65, so I still do some things with checks and I write maybe three or four a month, but now if I write one check a month, it’s going to be a lot,” he said. -he declares.

In Nanette’s and Don’s cases, their banks detected the forged signatures before the money was transferred, but not everyone was so lucky.

Like the others, Bonnie, who also asked that her surname be withheld, dropped a check at the Millwood Drive Post Office mailbox early last month.

Three days later, she tried to withdraw money from her checking account at Chase Bank and was shocked when it was refused.

“They told me I had nothing left (left),” she said.

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Someone had taken the check she had deposited a few days earlier, washed it, changed the amount from less than $100 to $10,000, and successfully cashed it.

Bonnie contacted the US Postal Service and quickly closed her old account, but within days “my new account had been compromised by $46,000,” she said.

The bank caught the second breach, but Bonnie said she has since been caught up in a grueling cycle of phone calls with her bank and authorities in a bid to get her money back.

“I have extra funds in my savings but my water heater broke in my attic and flooded my bedroom ceiling and I really need that money for home repairs,” Bonnie said. . “The bank doesn’t seem to care.”

In a statement emailed to the attorney, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said it was “aware” of recent reports of mail theft in Baton Rouge, including at the Baton Rouge Post Office. Millwood, and that the department is working with local law enforcement partners “to identify and apprehend those responsible.

He did not provide a figure on the number of USPS customers who filed such reports.

In the meantime, Chase Bank spokesman Greg Hassell said people should pick up their mail frequently and avoid leaving outgoing or incoming checks in mailboxes overnight. If customers plan to use post office mailboxes, checks must be deposited before the last pickup time of the day.

“Monitor your account, including through your bank’s digital tools,” suggested Regions Bank spokesperson Veleka Finch. “The sooner you, or your bank, spot something that doesn’t seem right, the sooner the matter can be investigated.”

To be prepared in case a check is stolen, some banks suggest writing them with uni-ballpoint pens which contain color pigments, which become embedded in the paper and are more difficult to wash off.

However, Hassell added that the safest option is to skip the mail altogether and use digital payments whenever possible.

“Fraudsters always seem to try new tactics, but the good news is that a strong banking system and informed customers can help deter their activity,” Finch said.

But for Nanette and others, the experience was shocking.

“I can get through this, but so many people can’t,” she said, adding that while she knows she’s been luckier than others, dealing with the consequences has been difficult. a nuisance.

“All my bills that I pay automatically have to be changed to the new bank account, so that’s really an inconvenience,” she said. “It’s disconcerting, but I’ll get through this. I can manage.”

Most of the other victims she is in contact with through neighborhood social networking app NextDoor say their banks also detected the fakes before any money transfers were made, “but that scares everyone off,” Nanette continued. “I tell everyone that I can’t use the blue boxes for checks.”

Stolen mail should be reported to local law enforcement, as well as the Postal Inspection Service by calling (877) 876-2455 or visiting their website at www.uspis.gov/news/scam-article/check-washing

Shawanda H. Saldana