Ridgefield PD warn about rise in 'check washing' scam where checks are stolen from mailboxes

Ridgefield police

Ridgefield police

Ridgefield Police / Contributed

RIDGEFIELD  — Local police are warning residents about a type of mail crime that appears to be increasing as it gets closer to the holidays.

Thieves have been stealing checks from residents' mailboxes and "washing" them  — erasing the name of the payee and amount, then writing in other details and cashing the check, according to police. 

About 20 incidents in Ridgefield have been reported to police since Oct. 1, and no one has been caught yet, police said.

On Wednesday, Ridgefield Selectman Barbara Manners said she was recently a victim of the scam, and reported the incident immediately to police.

"I received my monthly bank statement, which lists the checks that have been cashed in the last month. There was one check made out to a woman whose name I didn’t recognize for $10,000+. I immediately called the bank and reported to them that while the signature certainly looks like mine, I never wrote a check for that amount to anyone," wrote Manners in an email to police that she shared with Hearst Connecticut Media. 

Manners wrote that she verified with her checkbook and found she had written that check to Shriners Hospitals for Children, for $100.  

"Somewhere between my mailbox and the destination of Shriners, the check was obviously stolen and altered. I don’t know at this point if it was seized from my mailbox. If it was, it was one of a number of charitable contributions I made that day, the rest of which have cleared," Manners wrote. "The bank has stopped my account and reported it to the fraud branch of the bank."

Ridgefield Police Officer David Samoskevich said the check washing crime is happening all over town over the past few weeks, and the postmaster has been made aware.

"We've had numerous phone calls,"  he said. "We've had a lot of people come in."

He encouraged everyone who experiences the crime to come into the police department to file a police report.
 
He added the scam is most likely happening because it's the holiday season and thieves know people are sending checks in the mail at this time of year.  

No one has been caught. Samoskevich said most likely, several perpetrators are participating in the scam. 

"We investigate every suspicious vehicle. If somebody says they saw somebody go in the mailbox and they say they saw a car, then we have something to go on. Or if they have a ring camera that catches it, then we have something to going on, but we really haven't had anything to really go on," Samoskevich said.

The penalty for being caught erasing ink on checks depends on how much money perpetrators are writing the checks out for and how many checks police can prove they stole.

He added since it's a federal crime, so federal police would get involved as well. 

Prevention

To avoid becoming a victim of a check washing scam, Ridgefield police captain Jeff Raines recommends using a black gel (indelible ink) pen when writing a check. The ink soaks into the fibers of the check, he said.

Samoskevich said 75 to 80 percent of inks are washable "so they can erase the ink from the check and write it out to whomever and for how much they want." 

"It could say it on the package when you buy it or ... ask them when you're at the store," he said. 

He recommended sending all checks through the mail by physically going to the post office and handing them to a postal worker.

"If you have no other choice, don't raise the red flag," he said, adding the red flag shows there's mail inside the mailbox. "Nine times out of 10, they get checks. People are writing checks — the end of the month's bills, electricity, cable — all that stuff."

Additionally, Raines said avoid using standalone postal mailboxes, even though he said most of them have been updated with anti-fishing devices inside the door.

"I think people should know about this," said Manners, referring to the scam. "They shouldn't put outgoing checks in their mailboxes."