A flag “up” means there’s something in your mailbox. While you expect the mail person will get your envelope and contents to its destination, there’s a chance someone else will get to it first.

That’s a problem, especially if your envelope included a check.

United States Post office

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued an alert earlier this year. It reads, “Criminals have been increasingly targeting the U.S. mail and United States Postal Service mail carriers since the COVID-19 pandemic to commit check fraud.

“Criminals typically steal personal checks, business checks, tax refund checks, and checks related to government assistance programs, such as Social Security payments and unemployment benefits. Following the initial theft and fraudulent negotiation of the stolen checks, criminals may continue to exploit their victims by using the personal identifiable information found in the stolen mail for future fraud schemes, such as credit card fraud or credit account fraud.”

With a check in their hands, criminals can then turn to check washing.

Check Washing

According to a report by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, check washing scams involve changing the payee names and often the dollar amounts on checks and fraudulently depositing them. Their report continues: “Occasionally, these checks are stolen from mailboxes and washed in chemicals to remove the ink. Some scammers will even use copiers or scanners to print fake copies of a check. In fact, Postal Inspectors recover more than $1 billion in counterfeit checks and money orders every year.”

Check washing has evolved from small-time criminals pilfering checks to organized efforts with groups of thieves infiltrating postal collection boxes. These criminals sell copies of washed checks and go as far as hiring people to walk into banks to cash or deposit checks.

Fewer Checks, More Fraud

Today, more people pay with credit or debit cards or through digital banking services than with checks.  Americans wrote roughly 3.4 billion checks in 2022, down from nearly 19 billion checks in 1990, according to the Federal Reserve. Yet check fraud is more prevalent than ever, nearly doubling since 2021 from 350,000 to 680,000 checks. 

What Can You Do?

The post office advises one of the best ways to avert thieves is to take your mail into the post office.  Don’t use the outside drop box.  And never place outgoing mail in your home mailbox.