Cleaned out: ‘Check washing’ leaves Virginia Beach woman with empty bank account

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A Virginia Beach woman is the latest victim of a scam known as “check washing.” Fraudsters use common chemicals to wash the ink from a personal check, and then write in their own name and a larger amount to steal your money. First, they have to steal your mail.

Natalie Smith of Virginia Beach mailed her $78 water bill payment from her Dollar Bank checking account in early February. She got the bad news last week.

“That check that I made out to the water bill was cashed in Pittsburgh for $9,800. I had no money, and I went ‘Oh my God,’ and of course, I went right to the bank,” she said.

Smith’s account was cleaned out after her check had been washed, and then someone filled in the blank check for $9,800.

Smith mailed the check at a drive-by postal collection box in front of the post office on Thoroughgood Road. On Tuesday morning, the metal drop slot was bent and out of shape, although Postal Inspector Michael Romano says that resulted from the box being struck by a vehicle and was not related to any mail theft.

“We noticed that box being really tore up like that about a week or a week and a half ago,” said Lynn Nelson, who owns a business across the road. “I had at least a dozen checks that I mailed to contractors that never showed up.”

“I’m not alone in this. It’s happening not just here, it’s happening all around,” Smith said.

Virginia Beach police say the best defense against this is to do your banking online, but acknowledged that “this makes it much harder for the older generation who may not be familiar enough or comfortable with making online payments.”

Neither Romano nor Dollar Bank officials would comment on Smith’s case specifically, citing their own investigations. Smith wonders why the bank would honor the check when she did not have sufficient funds in her account to cover the $9,800 fraudulent amount.

“My daughter swears that I should just give up writing checks,” Smith said, but added that she’ll continue to write checks.

She’ll just be more careful how she mails them.

“Don’t put it in the outside mailbox, go inside,” she advises.

Here are several prevention tips for customers from the U.S. Postal Service:

  1. When possible, deposit outgoing mail inside a Post Office or hand it to a mail carrier.
  2. Don’t leave your mail unattended or in your mailbox overnight.
  3. If you’re going to be away, place a Hold Mail request online at USPS.com.
  4. If you mail a gift card, maintain a copy of the receipt.
  5. Never send cash via the mail.

If someone believes they are a victim of mail theft, they should report it to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service by calling 877-876-2455 or online.

The USPS is a partner in National Consumer Protection Week, which runs now through March 6.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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