LONGMEADOW — Online financial transactions have been a major path for theft and identity fraud for years. As more safeguards have been put in place to protect against those crimes, thieves have shifted back to more low-tech methods of stealing from the public.

The Longmeadow Police Department has seen an “influx” of residents reporting forgery in which checks are cashed by people unknown to them, and often for larger amounts than originally written, Chief Robert Stocks said. The department is working with the postal inspector and other area law enforcement to investigate these types of incidents, known as ‘check washing.’

Check washing is the practice of putting a stolen check in a mixture of chemicals to lift the ink from the paper, after which it is dried and made out to another recipient for a larger amount.

Stocks described the method as “rudimentary,” but the low-tech nature of check washing is precisely why it has become so popular. Christina Pickup, first vice president of security and fraud investigation for Berkshire Bank, said, “It’s lucrative and it’s very hard to track.” She added that these thefts are not usually the result of one or two people working alone in an area. “It’s organized crime,” she said.
Checks are usually intercepted by the perpetrators at public mailboxes, where they use illegally obtained

master keys or “fish” envelopes out of the slot, Stocks said. Pickup noted checks are sometimes stolen from recipients’ home mailboxes, as well. She explained that thieves will often set up a bank account from a mobile device and deposit the check electronically, eliminating any face-to-face contact with bank employees or security camera footage that could identify them. Stocks said the thieves will also sometimes use an accomplice who is “’unwittingly’ coerced into cashing the checks at their banks. In turn, they are paid a portion of the stolen proceeds.”

Stocks said, “Reports of check washing has become frequent here in Longmeadow. The LPD has an open investigation with the postal inspector to identify those responsible.”

The issue is not limited to Longmeadow, however. “Not only have we experienced an uptick in this kind of fraud, every bank nationwide has, too,” Pickup said. In the past few years, check washing has resulted in losses of “millions, if not billions” for financial institutions in the United States, she estimated.

The volume of check washing increased during the coronavirus pandemic, Pickup said, explaining that more people mailed bills and cards, rather than paying in person or hand-delivering greetings and gifts while visiting loved ones.

Pickup said people who have experienced check theft must file an affidavit with the bank attesting that there was a theft. Berkshire Bank works with the bank that paid out the funds to recoup the money for the customer. The targets of this theft should also close their account because, Pickup explained, images of the check and financial information are sold on the dark web, providing other criminals access to the person’s money, as well. Finally, people who have experienced such crimes are urged to file a police report.

Pickup recommends using digital banking, but if a check must be written, both she and Stocks recommend using a gel pen or sharpie pen. Unlike traditional ballpoint pens, gel and sharpie ink sinks into the paper, making it more difficult to alter.

The LPD encourages people to take these steps to limit or avoid check washing theft:

  • If feasible, use online or electronic banking rather than utilizing conventional checks.
  • Mail checks directly through the local post office or hand mail directly to a mail carrier.
  • Closely monitor your bank accounts.
  • Shred all documents when not needed.
  • Report all suspicious activity to the Police Department.

Additionally Bank of America recommends the following:

  • Treat your checkbooks like cash. Always store them in a safe place.
  • Send checks through certified mail, a secure mailbox or directly within the Post Office.
  • Confirm receipt with the intended check recipient.
  • Set up direct deposit or deposit checks electronically
  • Turn on transaction alerts to keep track of the amount of money coming out of accounts. Make sure that the amount that comes out of the account matches the amount for which the check was written.
  • Review your deposit account activity and bank statements frequently and notify the bank immediately if there is unusual activity.