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Postal Inspector investigating thefts from blue USPS mailboxes

Thieves are stealing checks from the government mailboxes, forging them and then cashing them at area banks.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s a simple task many do without thinking twice – dropping mail in a blue USPS mailbox.

“In August, I paid my bill by check, mailed it at a mailbox, and forgot about it,” said Marcey Goulder Forman.

But that check she placed in a Worthington mailbox would not stay forgotten for long. About a month later, she got a notice that her bill had not been paid. But the check had been cashed for more than she had written it.

“Someone had used what looked like black magic marker and written over my amount and upped the price by $200, and somehow, they cashed the check,” Forman said. “So I went to the bank, talked to the manager and said, what is going on. And he said, well, it’s all done electronically now, so, while a human being could look at this check and know that it had been tampered with, a machine doesn’t know, so it just simply went through. He said they knew whose account it’d gone in, and the police were handling it.”

In fact, Worthington Police have taken roughly 20 reports of mail theft so far this year, with the main targets being the blue mailboxes in front of the Kroger and those in front of the Worthington post office.

Meanwhile, the Columbus Division of Police has taken more than 400 reports this year, with some being from the big, blue mailboxes.

Both agencies have deferred to the U.S. Postal Inspector for questions about the investigations. 10TV asked for more information but instead was given this response:

"I cannot speak to ongoing investigations as it could jeopardize those investigations. We encourage customers to report suspicious or illegal activity to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service by calling 1 (877) 876-2455."

Of course, mail theft is nothing new, but technology is now making it a bit easier, according to banking officials.

“Unfortunately check fraud has been with us for probably as long as we’ve had checks, and we’ve definitely seen throughout the pandemic fraudsters of all types are really taking advantage of Ohioans,” said Mike Adelman, president and CEO of the Ohio Bankers League.

But Adelman says there has been an increase in theft and fraud during the pandemic. Thieves can steal checks right out of mailboxes, tamper with and forge them, and then deposit them in either ATMs or via mobile phone without ever having to see a teller face to face.

That’s why banks implementing intense fraud detection systems is so important.

“Banks make extraordinary efforts to protect and safeguard customer accounts, as demonstrated by our most recent deposit account fraud survey which shows that banks stopped $9 out of every $10 of attempted deposit account fraud in 2018,” said Sarah Grano, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. “We’ve seen criminals gravitate back toward check fraud and fortunately banks are well-equipped to catch it thanks to sophisticated fraud prevention systems and constant vigilance by dedicated employees.”

But, even with face-to-face contact, thieves are still finding ways to cash in on mail theft.

“It’s just way too easy today, given the printer technology many of us have in our own homes, where we could create some sort of documentation to maybe look like I work for some particular company and have the ability to cash a check on that company’s behalf,” Adelman said.

The best advice from officials is to do as much online banking and bill pay as possible and to walk a check directly into a post office to mail.

It’s something Forman has certainly taken to heart. She has changed some of her habits, but she’s still waiting to get her money back from that August theft. She was told it should happen in October.

In the meantime, she’s hoping to spread the word about the risk of mail theft.

“This was a surprise to me to hear that checks that I always thought were pretty safe, especially when dropped in a United States post office box, are no longer safe,” she said.

The ABA also provided 10TV with some data and tips for consumers:

ABA’s most recent data related to check fraud:

  • America’s banks prevented $22.3 billion in attempted fraud against deposit accounts in 2018
  • While total attempted fraud against deposit accounts reached $25.1 billion in 2018, banks’ prevention measures stopped nearly $9 out of every $10 of attempted fraud.
  • According to the report, check fraud accounted for 47%, or $1.3 billion, of industry deposit account fraud losses, closely followed by debit card fraud losses at 44%, or $1.2 billion. The remaining 9%, or $265 million, of losses were attributed to electronic banking transactions, including bill pay, P2P transfers, wire and ACH transactions.
  • Total attempted check fraud increased to $15.1 billion and accounted for 60% of attempted fraud against deposit accounts.

ABA tips for consumers:

  • Report any suspected fraud to your bank immediately.
  • Use online banking to protect yourself. Monitor your financial accounts regularly for fraudulent transactions. Sign up for text or email alerts from your bank for certain types of transactions, such as online purchases or transactions of more than $500. Also, consider making and receiving payments electronically through online bill-pay and other options.
  • Beware of phishing scams. Never give out personal financial information in an email or over the phone unless you have initiated the contact.
  • Monitor your credit report. Order a free copy of your credit report every four months from one of the three credit reporting agencies at annualcreditreport.com.

ABA’s consumer tips related to check fraud scams and ABA joint infographic with FTC.

Fake checks continue to be one of the most common instruments used to commit fraud against consumers. Before you deposit a check you weren’t expecting or wire funds to an unknown recipient, here is what you should know:

How do Fake Check Scams Work?

There are many variations of the scam. It usually starts with someone offering to:

  • Buy something you advertised for sale
  • Pay you to work at home
  • Give you an “advance” on a sweepstakes or you’ve won
  • Give you the first installment on the millions you’ll receive for agreeing to transfer money in a foreign country to your bank account for safekeeping

Fraudsters issue you a check or money order worth more than the amount owed to you and instruct you to wire the excess funds back to them before receiving your lump sum payment. After you’ve sent the money, you find out that the check or money order is bogus.

Tips to prevent fake check scams:

  • Even if the check has “cleared,” you may not be in the clear. Under federal law, banks must make deposited funds available quickly, but just because you can withdraw the money doesn’t mean the check is good, even if it’s a cashier’s check or money order. If you have any questions about whether or not the check is good, talk to your banker. Be sure to explain the source of the check, the reasons it was sent to you, and whether you are being asked to wire money back.
  • Don’t be fooled by the appearance of the check. Scam artists are using sophisticated technology to create counterfeit checks that mirror the appearance of legitimate checks. Some are counterfeit money orders, some are phony cashier’s checks and others look like they are from legitimate business accounts. The companies whose names appear may be real, but someone has dummied up the checks without their knowledge.
  • Never ‘pay to play.’ There is no legitimate reason for someone who is giving you money to ask you to wire money back or send you more than the exact amount —that’s a red flag that it’s a scam. If a stranger wants to pay you for something, insist on a cashier’s check for the exact amount, preferably from a local bank or one with a local branch.
  • Do not respond to online solicitations for “easy money.” Social media scams like card cracking may offer “quick ways to earn extra cash,” but keep in mind that easy money is rarely legal money.
  • Verify the requestor before you wire or issue a check. It is important to know who you are sending money to before you send it. Just because someone contacted you doesn’t mean they are a trusted source.
  • Report any suspected fraud to your bank immediately. Bank staff are experts in spotting fraudulent checks. If you think someone is trying to pull a fake check scam, don’t deposit it—report it. Contact your bank and report it to the Federal Trade Commission or The Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker.

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