A $2 gel pen can thwart would-be ‘washers’

As cases rise in this part of the Bronx, even a notary has noticed a growing trend

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A man recently reported two money orders he sent to his landlord for rent were never received. The perp washed the payee section of the money orders and inserted their name.

In another case, a man mailed a $320 check to his health care provider at a U.S. Postal Service mailbox. Later on, the victim noticed his bank account listed the check for $5,780 with a different payee.

A man mailed a personal check on April 1, 2022 at a mailbox located at West 231st and Arlington Avenue. Police report that someone then fished out the check, changed the amount to $7,530, then cashed it.

An employee from the Methodist Home for Nursing and Rehabilitation at 4499 Manhattan College Parkway told police on the afternoon of Feb. 8, 2022 she received a call from the bank asking if she had submitted a pair of checks totaling $25,880.

Known as “check washing,” these are just some of the cases that have been reported to the 50th Precinct by greater Riverdale residents who have been ripped off by perps using one of the oldest low-tech methods of check fraud.

“Since January I have had about four or five people come to me with an affidavit asking for my notarization,” said Stephen Reich of Stephen’s Notary Service in Spuyten Duyvil. “They bring the document in for identity verification from the bank.

“They come in and tell me about their checks that were taken out of mailboxes and altered. It’s thousands of dollars being lost by consumers.”

Other than complain to their banks, what can consumers victimized by this fraud do? Through his research, Reich came upon one good solution to thwart perps. “Use a gel pen when writing checks,” he said. “They are only $2 each.”

It has been reported gel pens are nearly impossible to erase because the ink soaks into the paper.

However, that doesn’t seem to stop the criminals from stealing the checks in the first place. The perps use a string with a sticky note attached to “fish” the envelopes containing the checks from a mail box. They then use common solvents such as acetone, brake fluid or bleach to “wash” the amount and payee from the check. They leave the person’s signature to make it look as if the victim signed the check with the new amount and payee’s name, according to the Westchester County district attorney’s office.

A person is then paid to walk the check to a bank to cash it and collect the money to complete the fraud.

Last year Reich said he had to notarize about 10 of those affidavits over the course of the whole year. When this happens, consumers contact their bank and ask for the money to be put back into their account since they didn’t write the check for the fraudulent amount.

According to a Feb. 9 CNBC interview with an American Banking Association executive, check fraud is one of the oldest scams in finance. “It has recently been ‘supercharged’ as a result of messaging platforms like Telegram, which allows criminals to hide their identities behind anonymous usernames,” ABA senior VP Paul Benda said.

“The platforms allow people who steal checks from the mail to connect with others who offer to walk the checks so they can cash them.”

CNBC reported there were nearly 250,000 cases of check fraud nationwide in 2021, citing data from the Crimes Enforcement Network. That figure nearly doubled last year with 460,000 cases reported, according to the network. “We really need the Postal Service to get better at protecting the mail,” Benda told CNBC. “We really want law enforcement to step up their game and prosecute more of these cases.”

Seeing a new trend, Reich decided to take matters into his own hands and find out what he could do to help consumers before they are victim of such fraud. He knew that victims were reporting the crime, which is considered a grand larceny if more than $1,000. But he wasn’t so sure tellers at some of the local bank branches were aware of the recent spate and how to prevent the crime.

“I went to Capital One bank, and they didn’t know about it,” Reich said. “I went to the Apple Bank on Johnson Avenue and they didn’t know about it and dismissed me. But when I went to the Apple Bank in Bronxville, they were empathetic and said they would file a complaint with the Johnson Avenue branch.”

Apple Bank would not comment for this story citing “the sensitive nature of this issue and the need to protect the privacy of our customers.”

Not satisfied by the response he received, Reich filed a complaint with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and did some research on the American Banking Association website.

While he awaits some kind of response from the federal agency, he did come up with one thing banks could do to help their customers. “Let’s have banks give out gel pens at their branches, instead of ballpoints,” he said.