How thieves used old-fashioned check washing to take $5,620 from my bank account


“Jordan Critchlow”, the feds are looking for you. And for you, “Karen Woodson.”

Are those even your names? That’s what you called yourself when you cheated on my bank and took my money—$5,620.

Fraud specialists tell me the black art used against me is called “check washing”, the latest old-school crime to make an unexpected resurgence, like carjacking or identity theft in anyone, at least in part because of modern digital anti-fraud technology.

It took a month to recover this money from our duped bank, WSFS. It would have been a tough month if, like so many Americans, we were living paycheck to paycheck, in these times of high inflation.

Federal agents suspect that our monthly Delmarva Power check may be among the items stolen directly from blue mailboxes at the Talleyville, Del. post office, which faces busy US Route 202. “You have been identified as a possible victim,” the leader of a cross-functional team of Philadelphia-based postal inspectors wrote to me in a letter that arrived June 13, detailing the brazen burglary.

» READ MORE: Checks are stolen from Postal Service mailboxes, raising concerns about blue box security

According to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and industry groups, this kind of old-fashioned check fraud is becoming more common — a fact that investigators ironically blame on digital anti-fraud technology — which is also a cause. of our current carjacking epidemic.

Does it sound backwards? Certainly, the high-tech security adopted by major payment systems can confuse thieves by making money more difficult to steal.

But that doesn’t reform the thieves – just pushes them to new ways. Or in this case, to the pre-computer means of stealing – since the post office hasn’t made it harder to steal from mailboxes.

For example: “If the key fobs [with security computer chips] make it harder to rob a car, how you steal key fobs, you put a gun in someone’s face,” said Postal Inspector George P. Clark.

The same goes for bank check fraud. If smart cards make it harder to read stolen credit card account numbers, thieves will revert to more primitive tactics of “stealing a check from the mail stream,” Clark added. Philadelphians reported a wave of check robberies at post office boxes last winter.

I’m happy to say that “Jordan” and “Karen” didn’t fare worse thanks to my watchful wife, who worked too hard as a banker a long time ago, most recently a preschool teacher and careful mother to our six children, trusting the banking system without checking our transactions every day. She spotted the fake withdrawals on May 12.

We called WSFS and asked them to close the account and open a new one. (Second time in a year: Alert branch employees last fall caught a Pennsylvania man posing as me at a Chester County WSFS branch. Detained by East Whiteland Police, he skipped bail and has since been re-arrested for attempted criminal identity theft and forgery charges.)

How did these last thieves succeed? They had a copy of my check, with the correct account number.

They engraved my name and address and pasted on other personal information – called “check wash”, for the way thieves sometimes use a careful selection of ink solvents to erase inconvenient data.

It’s ancient technology, described in detail in convicted identity thief Frank Abagnale’s popular 1980 book, Catch Me If You Canand made into a fun Leonardo DiCaprio movie in 2002.

Last year, consumers reported $2.3 billion in scams by imposters — people impersonating them. That loss was nearly double the $1.2 billion lost a year earlier, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Overall consumer fraud losses increased by 70% in 2021, to $5.8 billion. The typical check scam costs consumers nearly $2,000, more than other common scams. People in their twenties are more than twice as likely as other Americans to be hit.

Total bank fraud hit a record 43,000 in the first quarter, while credit card fraud hit a record 118,000, according to the FTC. Banking hub Delaware and neighboring Maryland are two of the top three states for bank fraud per capita, with more than 500 reports per million residents in both states so far this year, according to the FTC.

“Fraud schemes are definitely on the rise,” says Christine Davis, chief risk officer at WSFS, the largest bank based in the Philadelphia area. “We’ve had, I would say, a three-fold increase in check washing over the last few years.”

When we reported the thefts from our account — before hearing from the postal inspectors — Davis’ colleagues asked if we had lost any checks in the weeks before the fraud. I reported that our April payment to Delmarva Power had not been collected. We thought he might have gotten lost in their system; my wife had made an override payment electronically and forgot about it.

When that happens, “tell the bank,” Davis said. This will warn them to be extremely vigilant about your account.

I should hope they would be careful anyway. “Jordan” and “Karen” were careful – they wrote their six checks for different amounts, from $375 to $1,800, and apparently deposited them in unmanned ATMs, where they were quickly honored thanks to the convenient electronic process that allows banks to move your money without paying live branch staff.

Davis apologized for taking a month to return my money after the bank errors. Sometimes it takes longer. “We have to work with another institution,” she said.

Bankers are careful not to tell people to stop using checks. But “I’m guessing your utility check was intercepted and duplicated,” said Michael Lawson, the former Wilmington City Police detective turned Craftsman Bank official who chairs the Delaware Association for the bank security.

“The best option to stop being a victim of check fraud is to stop writing checks and paying all bills electronically,” Lawson added.

More and more people are paying electronically. But technology also helps thieves. “There are a lot more posts on social media now, about how to do this stuff,” said Clark, the postal inspector. “They tell you how to get your hands on checks: search your grandparents’ dressers for old checkbooks or steal them through the mail. They show you what is flagged and what [looks authentic]. They tell you which chemicals to use to alter the details.

Are the banks urging Facebook or TikTok to remove these handy how-to guides, like they do with child pornography or bomb-making?

“The flow of information seems unstoppable,” Clark said. “Put a pin in one, there’s a billion more.”

ATM deposits are a convenience for people who have to deal with cash and checks at odd hours. But by removing the human staff, the process invites more thieves: “It’s intimidating to go and commit a crime when you’re dealing with a person in front of you,” Clark said. But by committing fraud remotely, via smartphone banking, “you don’t feel like you’re dealing with someone”.

In short, digital “discourages certain types of theft. It makes other flights easier,” Clark concluded.

Alas, the digital age has not made people more honest.


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