Check fraud soars 104%, fueled in part by widespread mail theft

(The Center Square) – Banking officials are warning Illinoisans about a rise in check fraud cases, an old scam that is getting a new lease on life thanks to organized mail theft rings.

In Illinois, data shows that over 26,000 Illinois consumers and businesses fell victim to check fraud in 2022, a 104% increase from 2021.

In one tricky scheme known as “check washing,” criminals use common chemicals to erase ink on stolen checks, then write the check for a large sum. The fraudulent checks are then either cashed or sold online.

The Illinois Bankers Association said criminals target their victims with sophisticated schemes that can involve a legitimate payment request, a blank check stolen from a checkbook, a previously paid or canceled check found in the garbage, or a check placed in the mailbox to pay a bill.

“Things are tight, and inflation is already high, so we want to make sure, as best as we can, that people are aware of this and they’re protected and don’t fall victim to this crime,” IBA president Randy Hultgren said.

A Financial Crimes Enforcement Network report found that banks reported roughly 680,000 incidents of check fraud last year, marking a significant increase from the 350,000 reports made in 2021. The U.S. Postal Service has also reported an unprecedented increase in mail theft and check fraud. 

Hultgren advises ordering checks from a reputable source, imprinting digital checks with a bold font that is difficult to alter, and regularly tracking and monitoring bank accounts.

He adds that consumers should contact their bank immediately if they suspect suspicious behavior.

“The tactics used by these criminals are constantly evolving, and Illinois bankers are encouraging consumers to stay informed and vigilant,” Hultgren said.

Widespread mail theft

Organized mail theft has become part of the “new hustle in urban America,” a law enforcement source told CWBChicago in January.

One arm of the operation is responsible for stealing U.S. Postal Service master keys from mail carriers, often at gunpoint. Those keys are passed on to “joggers,” who use them to open banks of mailboxes in residential buildings and steal the contents. The stolen mail is passed on to another arm of the organization specializing in financial crimes like identity theft and check washing.

Progress?

Since 2020, the U.S. Postal Service’s police force has been limited to protecting the agency’s physical assets rather than going on patrol to help protect the system as a whole and mail carriers in particular.

The change was a direct order from Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in 2020. Courts have upheld DeJoy’s authority to limit the police force mission.

Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin, is introducing legislation that he hopes will put the postal police back on the street.

About The Center Square 16 Articles
The Center Square was launched in May 2019 to fulfill the need for high-quality statehouse and statewide news across the United States, focusing on state- and local-level government and economic reporting. A taxpayer sensibility distinguishes the outlet's work from other coverage of state and local issues, providing focus on the costs of government decisions. The Center Square is staffed by editors and reporters with extensive professional journalism experience. We engage readers with essential news, data, and analysis. The organization is a project of the 501(c)(3) Franklin News Foundation, headquartered in Chicago. Their web address is thecentersquare.com