How to fight check washing? Why not just try a $2 gel pen


Over the years, The Riverdale Press has reported on a litany of crime rings — from stolen Honda CR-Vs and Kias, to catalytic converters, to car wheels and tires.

These crimes typically go unsolved, but the victims are made whole again through their auto insurance.

But what about when the crime involves identity theft in the form of “washed” checks — the kind of documents written predominantly by senior citizens and those who still use paper checks? The washing of checks — where a perp steals a check meant for a bill payment from a mailbox — is a much more personal crime than stealing cars and auto parts.

For one thing, the perp now has the victim’s name, address and bank account number that is posted on the check. And most importantly, they have their signature.

The crime is a very low-tech one, where the most important tool is a solvent such as acetone, brake fluid or bleach. The only other tool is a simple string with a sticky note that the perp uses to fish the envelopes out of the U.S. Postal Service mailbox.

Of course, this is not a new crime. Remember the 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks? It is based on true events involving a young skilled forger, Bronxville native Frank Abagnale, who made a living washing checks in the 1960s and 1970s while passing as a doctor, lawyer and pilot.

He is chased by an FBI agent. When Abagnale is finally caught, he agrees to work for the FBI as an expert on check forgery and identity theft.

Today, it is believed the new breed of check washers and forgers are people desperate to feed a drug addiction, or even provide capital for other notorious criminal rings.

Riverdale has had its rash of check washing incidents over the past year, more so over the past six months. In one case, a man 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 USPS mailbox.

Later on, the victim noticed his bank account listed the check for $5,780 with a different payee.

A Riverdale notary public reported he has encountered about five cases in the first two months of 2023 where victims came in with forms from the bank to get a refund for the lost funds. That’s already pacing well ahead of all last year, when he got nearly a dozen of such visits.

What can bank account holders who are victims of such a check scam do? Many banks will tell you to avoid mailing checks at those boxes after the scheduled pickup time, hold mail at the U.S. Post Office, never leave mail in your personal mailbox overnight, and check your account online frequently to see if checks have been cashed.

If there is one magic bullet, it may well be the type of pen you use to write the checks. It has been reported by several sources that gel pens cannot be washed. So, if you do anything, it may be a good idea to load up on gel pens.

We hear they only cost $2.

check washing, USPS, U.S. Postal Service, acetone, bleach, brake fluid, Catch Me If You Can, Frank Agagnale, bank accounts, senior citizens