Check theft through the mail is rising across America. Here's how you can reduce your risk
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with David Maimon about checks stolen from U.S. Postal Service boxes.
Checks are going missing from the mail in Georgia. The Dunwoody Police Department reports that checks totaling about half a million dollars have disappeared from the post office since last summer. Experts say those checks have found their way onto underground markets.
For a closer look at what's happening, we turn to David Maimon. He's a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University and director of the Evidence Based Cybersecurity Research Group. He spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: David, when we drop an envelope with a check into the mailbox, we want to be able to trust that it's going to arrive to where we want it to arrive. But from what you've been seeing, it seems like that trust is to some extent eroded. How is this happening?
David Maimon: Well, unfortunately, what we were seeing happening during the last year or so is mail being stolen from USPS mailboxes. We're seeing criminals targeting those mailboxes, targeting mail carriers for the Arrow Keys, which are used to open those mailboxes. They use the keys in order to open the mailboxes, empty them and look for checks and any kind of useful information they can use in order to run their criminal operation.
Peter Biello: And how does that work? How does one "wash" a check? I understand that's part of the process. What does — what does that entail?
David Maimon: It's a fairly easy and simple process. All you have to have is nail polish remover, you with your finger — and you probably have gloves on when you do that — simply remove the content from the check.
Peter Biello: But that check has got to be deposited somewhere, right? So who has a bank account that wouldn't be tracked when that check is eventually deposited?
David Maimon: There are a couple of plays there. You can definitely deposit the check in a drop account, which criminals set ahead of time under fictitious identities. But it doesn't necessarily have to go to your bank. You can go to a retail shop and simply cash the check.
Peter Biello: So this is — this is really alarming. And I wonder what happens to the victims of this. If you're expecting a check and you don't get it, you still expect that person to deliver that check that you were expecting. And then the person who issued the check suddenly has a fraudulent charge. Are those people just out of luck? What happens to the victims?
David Maimon: So usually when the victims realize that the check they sent to whoever they intended to send a check to was deposited or was cashed by individuals they didn't want to cash the checks, the first reaction is alarm, and then they call their banks with the hope for the money to be reimbursed into their bank account. That happens after the fact.
Peter Biello: Is that bank fraud protection, essentially? Or—
David Maimon: It is. At this point, though, it takes time for the money to get back to your bank account. We are familiar with victims, unfortunately, who are waiting seven or eight months for their money to be reimbursed.
Peter Biello: Where can people drop their mail so they can be more confident that it won't be intercepted by someone who shouldn't have access to it?
David Maimon: If you need to send mail, I think the best advice is simply deposit your mail inside the post office, maybe with the clerk or the vendor you know who works in the post office. Then your mail is potentially more protected.
Peter Biello: Potentially?
David Maimon: Potentially. I mean, there are many stories. And, you know, once you do what I do for a long period of time, you understand there are stories about insiders and individuals within USPS who actually cooperate with the criminals. ... Definitely there are cases like that, but we're not talking about pandemic like we're talking about what happens with the blue boxes where we know that they're getting hit very hard at this point. So my best advice to the listeners, if you really need to send mail, you might as well just get inside the post office and leave your mail with a clerk.
Peter Biello: How is the post office responding to this?
David Maimon: I don't know what they're doing. I know that I've been vocal about this issue over a year, and we're not seeing any improvement. We're not seeing any decrease in the volume of checks and volume of mail that we find out there. So whatever they're doing, it doesn't really work right now. It's a nationwide issue. We have seen this issue spreading all around the country and the response we see from law enforcement and USPS for it is insufficient at this point.