VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Steal the mail, wash the check, repeat. The cycle of “check washing,” a scam that involves mail and bank fraud, continues in Hampton Roads.
The cases of check washing at the post office on Thoroughgood Road in Virginia Beach, officially known as the Bayside station, go back as far as last spring. And for the first time, the United States Postal Service confirms that mail has been stolen there.
Our initial reporting in February uncovered three checks that were washed for similar amounts, all mailed from the Thoroughgood outdoor collection box. They started out as payments for bills, originally written for amounts of $200 or less.
Since then we’ve found three new cases that have connections to the first three.
“I don’t trust the situation,” said John Morrisette, whose case of check washing is the earliest of the six so far. He mailed a check for less than $150 on Thoroughgood Road, but it was stolen and rewritten for nearly $4,700.
“I don’t think these people have paper trails. I think my check was cashed somewhere in the state of Florida,” Morrisette said.
Morrisette’s bank reimbursed him.
Barbara Case’s washed check from last July was for more than twice that amount. It seemed painfully familiar when she saw our earlier coverage several weeks ago.
“[I thought] that’s the exact same thing that just happened to me,” Case said. “I looked at [the images of the washed checks] and I said ‘Oh my God, they’re the same people.'”
Case’s $240 Cox cable payment became $9,700. Her check was mailed from a different post office in Portsmouth, but the lettering and the numbers seem to be the work of the same person.
And unlike other victims we’ve uncovered, Case says she never got her money back.
Case’s check was written on her plumbing business account, and by the time her bookkeeper caught it, it was beyond the bank’s window to write it off as fraud.
“I just feel robbed, because I mean that’s a lot of money,” Case said.
In yet another case from last July, a Virginia Beach couple mailed an insurance payment from the Thoroughgood dropbox. The check washer got greedy, re-writing the check for $49,000, but the bank called the customer after someone tried to deposit it.
And now, the latest incident at Thoroughgood Road happened just this month.
In an email to 10 On Your Side, Postal Inspector Michael Romano stated: “theft of mail occurred from the blue collection box at the Bayside Post Office located at: 2109 Thoroughgood Rd. The theft occurred sometime between the last collection on Saturday [April 3] (approximately 5:00pm) and early on Monday morning [April 5]. As previously stated, this investigation remains active and we are unable to comment further at this time.”
The U.S. Postal Service posted a “crime alert” sign immediately next to the slot in the outdoor box. But neither rain nor snow nor a warning sign from the post office will keep the mail from being dropped into this abyss of uncertainty.
When 10 On Your Side was at the site for about an hour on April 14, several people dropped their mail into the box, either heedless of the warning or unconcerned about it.
As we interviewed Morrisette, we showed him that right behind him, people kept using the suspicious box.
He turned around in disbelief and said, “I don’t come up here anymore.”
When we pointed the warning out to some, they reconsidered and mailed their items inside the building.
Sheila Bailey lives nearby, saw our previous coverage, and no longer uses the outside box either, and can’t understand why some still do.
“I guess they don’t read [the warning sign]. I wouldn’t use it,” Bailey said.
“I think everything is very fishy,” Morrisette said.
Bank security expert Chip Kohlweiler of Navy Federal Credit Union offers these tips from the banking side:
- When sending checks through the mail, try to use the indoor post office drop boxes. This provides less opportunity for mailbox theft.
- Setting up transaction notifications is a great way to monitor your account for withdrawals.
- Be cautious accepting checks from people you have not met. Many job scams involve sending fraudulent checks to a “new hire” for them to cash.
In addition, Postal Inspector Michael Romano says postal customers can take these measures:
- When possible, deposit outgoing mail inside a Post Office or physically hand it to a Mail Carrier.
- Don’t leave your mail unattended or in your mailbox overnight.
- If you’re going to be away, place a Hold Mail request online at USPS.com.
- If you mail a gift card, maintain a copy of the receipt.
- Never send cash via the U.S. Mail.
Theft of mail is a federal offense punishable up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000 (18 USC 1708).
Romano also stated that the U.S. Postal Service has an initiative in place to replace blue collection boxes with newer and more secure models.