USPS Postal Inspector Reveals How to Mail Checks to Avoid Theft
Proceed with caution when you're writing and sending checks.
While it's now common to pay your bills online or sign up for autopay, some of us still prefer to mail checks. With whichever approach, though, there are always some associated risks: Hackers can gain access to your information online, but thieves can also swipe physical checks right from the mail. If you're paying checks the traditional way, you'll want to pay attention to new tips from a U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Postal Inspector, namely those that will help keep your hard-earned money safe and sound. Read on to find out how you can write and mail checks to avoid theft.
There's been an uptick in mail theft and check fraud.
Back in February, the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an alert about a "nationwide surge in mail-theft related to check fraud schemes," noting that the number of check fraud reports filed by banks doubled from 2021 to 2022.
In a recent interview with Federal News Network, Postal Inspector Michael Martel, of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), reiterated the "alarming" uptick in robberies of on-duty letter carriers. When robbing letter carriers, thieves are often looking for their arrow keys. These open the blue collection boxes and allow them to take packages and mail, which often contain checks.
Criminals steal these checks and alter them to include their own names or business accounts they control, per the FinCEN alert. During this process, known as check washing, bad actors also increase the amount on the check before they cash them.
The USPS and USPIS are introducing measures to deter thieves, but when it comes to sending checks through the mail, there are a few precautions you can take, too.
Be mindful of how you send and receive mail.
To prevent checks from being pilfered from outside your own home, don't leave mail sitting in your mailbox.
"You can significantly reduce the chance of being victimized simply by removing mail from your mailbox every day," Martel told Federal News Network, noting that sending checks out from your local post office is also a good idea.
Tracking your mail through USPS' Informed Delivery feature is helpful as well, Martel said. According to the agency's website, the feature will send you photos of the mail and packages that will be delivered to you that day.
Consider how you write your checks, too.
To keep your checks safe as they go through the mail system, consider the writing instrument you're using. While you may reach for your standard ballpoint, Ryan Moody, senior vice president of payments product management at Vericast, told Federal News Network that there's a better choice.
According to Moody, checks filled out with a gel pen are harder for fraudsters to "wash." This is due to the way that the ink is absorbed into the paper.
"When those chemicals get applied to a check that has that ink absorbed into the paper, those chemicals don't stand much of a chance against that, so it's very easy to see that check has been modified," Moody told Federal News Network.
As Premier Community Bank explains, gel pens have pigments "suspended in water-based gel," which means that they're resistant to most chemicals used in check washing. This kind of ink is able to bind to the paper better, unlike oil-based ink that settles on the paper's surface and is washed off easily as a result. Gel ink dries quicker, too, and doesn't smear, so your handwriting is more legible and durable.
The USPS says it's doing its part.
While you head to the office supply store for some tamper-proof pens, the USPS are USPIS are also working to keep your mail and your checks safe.
"The core mission of the Postal Inspection Service is the sanctity and security of the U.S. mail, Postal Service employees and the customers themselves. We want the American people to have the utmost faith that if they're dropping that bill payment into the mail stream, it will absolutely arrive to its destination. That's one of our top priorities," Martel told Federal News Network.
Almost 50,000 collection boxes will soon be outfitted with electronic locks, while others will require additional authentication to access, hopefully discouraging key theft from mail carriers, Federal News Network reported.
"What that does is it devalues the key. It devalues the very thing those criminals looking to rob our letter carriers are after in the first place." Martel told the outlet. "We're looking to increase safety for our letter carriers by employing a technological approach to the issue and really devalue those keys that we've seen in the past."
On top of this, Martel said that agencies are being more vigilant with local cases and arresting bad actors.