'Check washing' is gaining popularity across SE Wisconsin as criminals break into mailboxes to steal banking information

NOW: ’Check washing’ is gaining popularity across SE Wisconsin as criminals break into mailboxes to steal banking information

KENOSHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Check washing is the latest, ruthless trend criminals are taking part in. It's happening across the country, and CBS 58 has heard from many businesses and individuals who've experienced it here in SE Wisconsin recently. 

Check washing is a form of fraud, where a thief will use chemicals to remove the name on the check and deposit it into a different account than it was intended for. Criminals are doing it by stealing checks from mailboxes.  

Elijah Walters is the owner of two Office Furniture Warehouse locations in the area, and he's one recent victim of check fraud.

"We'll set our checks in our outgoing mail. Put the little red flag up and hope that USPS takes it safely," said Walters. It's how he pays his furniture every month. But this $6,000 check never made it to his vendor. 

"About a week later they notified me they still hadn't gotten the payment. That's when the photo had uploaded of who had deposited it and saw some random name on it," said Walters. 

After contacting his bank, he found out he was the victim of check washing. The Kenosha Police Department says this is a ruthless and popular way criminals are stealing money around the country, and it's rampant in Southeast Wisconsin as well; sometimes, they're getting their hands on keys to federal mailboxes and drop boxes, other times they're staking out mailboxes at local businesses. 

In a statement, Lt. Lieutenant Joseph Nosalik from the Kenosha Police Department told CBS 58: 

"In another similar case [...] upwards of a dozen checks were stolen from one business and were uttered around the country. It was so frequent and widespread that we believe the check was either disseminated on the internet or being used by organized crime."

Businesses aren't the only ones being targeted, but they're often the first choice because of the potential for more money. 

Jessica Frey is the deposit fraud investigator at UW Credit Union. She says it's important to stay on top of your finances to be sure you don't become a victim. 

"Putting different alerts in place on your own profile to help better manage the account and make sure the things that are clearing are things you authorized," said Frey. 

She recommends using Payee Positive Pay if your bank offers it, it allows you to approve checks before they clear. Another option is to pay your bills through an online portal when offered.

"If you do have to send a check, we would recommend using black gel ink," said Frey. "The reason being, whatever is used in that type of ink-- gel verses a ball point-- it reacts differently when individuals try to steal and wash those items. So, it's not as clean looking." 

As of now, Walters is still out $6,000. 

"The bank that actually deposited the check would be the one who would be issuing the money back after they do the investigation on it," he said. "And it's still not certain they'll get the money back. They're pretty confident but it's not 100 percent certain." 

Walters is cautioning others, especially small business owners, to put their checks in a secure location or to go directly to the bank. 

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