Mail theft and “check washing” are increasing in parts of Treasure Coast

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Some local law enforcement agencies are investigating what they have called a rise in mail theft and associated “check washing”, with others reporting varying levels of criminality.

St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brian Hester said his agency experienced five cases in May and two in April.

“We had zero until April of this year,” Hester said.

The seven incidents, he said, involved someone withdrawing mailed checks from mailboxes and altering the check by “washing checks” or setting up a fraudulent account. Check washing involves using chemicals to erase the name on a check and writing a new name on the check.

Hester said the incidents appeared isolated to the northern part of the county. He suspects they are related.

“It’s not new to our area,” Hester said. “I was a victim of the same type of crime about a year ago.”

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Port St. Lucie police investigated five cases in May and two in March, Deputy Chief Richard Del Toro said.

“All were stolen from a personal or work mailbox,” Del Toro said. “We could really put an end to check washing, if people didn’t put their checks in their personal mailboxes.”

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Prevent check fraud

Check fraud happens quite often, but there are things you can do to protect yourself against it.

Celeste E. Whittaker, @cp_CWhittaker

In Martin County, Chief Sheriff’s Deputy John Budensiek said his agency averages about two “check washing” cases a month. Managers, he said, tend to prefer company checks.

In addition to erasing or removing ink from checks, check washing can also refer to using routing and account numbers and other information from a stolen check to order or print another check, he said.

Itinerant criminals and professional fraudsters

“They’re using the same account number, the same sequence number, because this company accounted for this outgoing check,” Budensiek said. “What’s different on this check is obviously the name and then the dollar amount, and they don’t get caught right away.”

Martin County Sheriff’s officials arrested a New Jersey man and a Pennsylvania man after investigators reported they stopped their vehicle in Palm City on June 3 and found items, including five bank cards with different names, a folder containing “27 pages of blank drafts and completed checks,” a fraudulent Illinois driver’s license, printer, and notebook with names, birth dates, phone numbers, and Social Security numbers, records show.

Budensiek described the men as “roving criminals” and “professional crooks”.

“If you look at their fake IDs that they had, they had them from several different states,” he said. “They were into anything that involved fraud, stolen credit cards, stolen checks, check washing, printing their own checks, which is part of check washing.”

Del Toro said banks tend to be the ultimate victim because banks refund the owner of the check.

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“The original victim has no money,” he said.

He said that without issuing a subpoena to a bank, police will not necessarily know where the checks are deposited and whether it is in their jurisdiction.

“We haven’t really made arrests like this in the past that I know of, so it’s hard to say what their (motive) is,” Del Toro said. “We just know they use chemicals to wash the checks. We’ve seen that happen before.

Avoid being a victim of check washing

Budensiek suggested using online banking to minimize the chances of falling victim to check washing. He also said that if you receive a bill with a return envelope, put your check in a more discreet envelope.

Hester said locked mailboxes can be purchased at home improvement stores, allowing postmen to slip mail in, but they must be unlocked to remove mail.

“I always tell people, don’t put checks in your outgoing mail in your mailbox, anything you raise your red flag for is a red flag for criminals,” Hester said. “If you put something in your mailbox on the way out and you’re not home, and you’re not sitting there looking at it, you’re vulnerable.”

In Indian River County, sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carson said via email that a detective reviewing the cases didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

“We are not seeing an increase in reported incidents,” she said.

Budensiek said it was difficult to resolve the cases, noting that often those stealing the mail are not the ones cashing the checks.

Still, he said a man was arrested in early June in Palm Beach County in connection with thefts of mail and other items in March in Martin County.

“We can’t always connect the dots. Often the guys who steal the mail and recreate these checks will pay someone to use their own ID,” Budensiek said. “They will walk into the bank and they will take the risk of their ID being flagged or the check not being cashed.”

Mail theft is a crime with possible federal charges

Mail theft is a crime. Under federal law, being charged with mail theft could land a person in federal prison for up to five years and fined up to $250,000.

Check fraud, like check washing, is usually prosecuted by the federal government and can result in prison sentences of up to 30 years as well as extremely high fines. The amount of the fees will depend on the value of the check(s).

Will Greenlee is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Follow Will on Twitter @OffTheBeatTweet or contact him by phone at 772-267-7926. Email him at [email protected]

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