Chicago sees stolen checks jump from mailboxes

Midge Laurin dropped a check into a U.S. Postal Service mailbox on Central Avenue near her Southwest Side home in September — a $30 contribution to her cousin’s daughter’s school in Crystal Lake.

Three days later, she and her husband logged into their bank account and discovered that the check had been stolen, rewritten and cashed at a “Crystal E. Hunter” for $9,475.81.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Laurin, a retired office manager. “How did they know I even had the money?”

Laurin’s husband, Francis, called the Chicago police but was referred to the United States Postal Inspection Service, where he filed a report.

The couple went to their bank and were told it could take up to six months to get the money back. A bank employee told them that seven other customers were recent victims of the same crime.

“They looked at us like it was a daily occurrence,” Laurin said.

The stolen check scheme, dubbed “check wash,” has exploded during the pandemic, leaving many victims struggling for months to get their money back. And the situation has worsened over the past year, experts say.

In most cases, thieves steal checks from mailboxes and erase the ink using household chemicals. They then rewrite the check to another person and cash it at an ATM or currency exchange.

“We are seniors on fixed incomes and we didn’t expect this to happen,” Laurin said. She and her husband need money for expenses related to the sale of their current house. For now, it’s on hold.

“They said six months. It’s a very long wait,” she said.

After a reporter contacted Laurin’s bank, the bank told her the claim was settled and she could expect to be reimbursed within days.

A sign warning U.S. Postal Service customers of the potential for mail theft is posted outside the Harwood Heights Post Office, 7101 W. Gunnison St. Miriam Di Nunzio/Chicago Sun-Times

The check washing program has also affected those in power, including Laurin’s 13th Borough Alderman Marty Quinn.

“I was totally caught off guard,” said Quinn, who said he was unaware of the check washing until last year when he became a victim of it.

He said he learned he had been scammed when he received an overdue mortgage notice after mailing a check to a mailbox near 59th Street and Avenue Nashville.

“You pressed the panic button because your identity was compromised,” Quinn said.

Thieves ‘hit a jackpot’

Some stolen checks are being sold on the Internet for hundreds of dollars in what has become a “highly organized type of crime,” according to David Maimon, an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University.

Money from the checks has been used to fund street gangs and buy drugs, guns, jewelry and cars, said Maimon, who leads the evidence-based cybersecurity research group at the ‘university.

His group monitors more than 60 underground websites to track stolen checks for sale, and he found more than 1,000 checks from victims in Illinois for sale on the dark web from December through May.

Check thieves have hit other states harder, Maimon said, “but we know things are looking up in Chicago.”

Although no agency could provide statistics on check washing, all check fraud cases have been steadily increasing in Illinois, having more than doubled from five years ago.

So far this year, more than 17,000 cases of check fraud have been reported in Illinois, compared to 13,000 cases in 2021 and 5,360 cases in 2014, according to the US Treasury Department.

graph showing check for suspicious activity
Reports of all types of check fraud are increasing every year in Illinois. United States Treasury Department

Why is this seemingly old-fashioned crime emerging in an endemic internet age with its own host of virtual scams?

“It works. It means they hit a jackpot and people tell their friends,” said Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois.

How to avoid being a victim

Bernas offered these tips to avoid falling victim to check washing:

  • Use an indelible black gel ink pen that cannot be erased.
  • Drop mail with checks inside the post office, not in the blue mailboxes outside.
  • Pay your bills online.
  • Immediately retrieve incoming mail.
  • Drop off mail with checks just before the last pickup from a mailbox.

Some victims wait months for reimbursement while their banks investigate the claims and determine among themselves who is liable to pay, Bernas said.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service declined to share statistics on check washing, armed robberies of letter carriers or the measures they take to combat crime.

“I can tell you that we are anecdotally aware of the trend,” said Spencer Block, a spokesperson for the agency’s Chicago office. The Postal Inspection Service is working with local police departments to crack down on check washing, he said.

Victims can report the crime to the Postal Inspection Service at (877) 876-2455.

“Amazing to see how things have evolved”

Maimon’s research team first noticed a resurgence of the stolen check scheme in late 2021. Checks from Florida began appearing on the dark web, followed by New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Criminals following the same playbook then began stealing and selling checks in other cities across the country, including Chicago.

What usually happens is that criminals rob mail carriers for their master keys, which can open mailboxes on the street and in building lobbies in an entire ZIP code. The keys are sold online for between $800 and $2,500, depending on how profitable a ZIP code is, Maimon said.

An increase in stolen checks was linked to a significant increase in armed robberies of USPS postmen for their master keys, according to a March memo from the Postal Inspection Service to the Department of Justice.

The Postal Inspection Service issues $25,000 rewards for tips leading to a letter carrier robbery conviction. Thieves have been wanted in at least four postman robberies in the Chicago area over the past year, according to wanted notices shared by the Postal Inspection Service.

Chicago police say at least five armed robberies of letter carrier master keys have been reported on the North and West Sides since August.

Two letter carriers in Evanston were robbed at gunpoint of their master keys within 24 hours in September, police said.

Mack Julion, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Chicago, told the Chicago Sun-Times that some carriers are considering not carrying out their missions.

“In any case where they don’t feel safe, they certainly have the right not to give birth,” Julion said.

A mail thief used a USPS key to steal mail from the blue box outside the town hall in suburban Norridge in August, police said. More than 40 checks have been stolen this year in the village.

The criminals then drive the stolen mail to hideouts — usually cheap hotel rooms — to sort the mail, Maimon said.

Some criminals have even hired drug addicts with the promise of food or money to sift through the mail, Maimon said. They organize mail into personal checks (which sell for around $125 on the dark web) and business checks (which usually sell for $250).

“It’s pretty mind blowing to see how things have progressed,” Maimon said.

All types of people buy stolen checks online.

“There is no profile that we can identify,” Maimon said. “There is a very extensive supply chain.”

The crime has become more complex in recent months, Maimon said. Some criminals now offer personal information about their victims, including social security numbers and account balances.

In some cases, criminals use this personal information to take over bank accounts and create fake driver’s licenses and passports, which they use to open new bank accounts and lines of credit.

“It’s really disturbing at this point,” Maimon said.

He said some criminals have sources at banks and credit bureaus who provide them with information.

“The operation is completely synchronized and organised. These are not young people stealing mail and washing checks,” Maimon said.

Little Italy, a hot spot for stolen checks

Several recent victims in Chicago live in the Little Italy neighborhood.

“It’s super frustrating,” said resident Liz Gardner. In April, she wrote a check for several thousand dollars to the IRS and slipped the envelope into a blue mailbox at Taylor and Loomis streets.

Two days later, her husband noticed that their bank account showed that the check had been cashed by someone else. A copy of the check showed that it had been endorsed by someone else, but the amount was unchanged.

She immediately informed the bank and the police of the theft but still has not been reimbursed for the check.

“We’re now five months away and we still haven’t gotten the money back,” she said.

Another victim, Monica Pascente, sent a check for $123 for a credit card payment in August. Someone stole the check and cashed it for $9,500.

Pascente, who has lived all his life on Taylor Street, said: “I think as an American citizen everyone should be allowed to drop mail in mailboxes.”

She always sends her checks, although she knows the risk.

“Not everyone is computer savvy,” Pascente said.

Kevin Ngo rarely mails checks but said he thought it was the right thing to do in June when he attended a wedding in New York but didn’t want to travel with him. a gift.

Sending the money through Venmo would have felt impersonal, he said.

The 33-year-old Little Italy resident dropped the check for $200 in a mailbox on Laflin and Flournoy streets. A few days later, he received an email from his bank saying they would not cash his check for $4,900.

His check had been stolen and washed. He filed a complaint with the police.

“In the end, I was lucky, but I’m sad for everyone who lost money,” Ngo said. “I no longer deposit checks in the mail.”

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