By Susan R. Ralston, Old Point National Bank
I vividly recall my mother hand-delivering important mail to the U.S. postal blue box, ensuring it reached its destination securely. However, in today’s Hampton Roads, dropping mail containing a check payment into a blue box can invite trouble, potentially leading to mail theft and check fraud.
Fraudsters in our area have been using blue boxes as their hunting ground for checks. They discover check payments and employ various tactics, such as “washing” the checks with common items like nail polish remover to remove the ink on the front and make them payable to themselves. Alternatively, they alter checks by changing the amounts. Subsequently, they present these manipulated checks at different financial institutions for cashing. An alarming trend has emerged, where fraudsters create counterfeit checks from stolen check information, and these counterfeit checks look so professional that banks cash them without suspicion.
The U.S. Postal Service has taken action by closing down many local blue boxes, leaving them encapsulated in plastic or bearing signs indicating they are no longer serviced. But you might wonder how fraudsters access the boxes. They do so with a pry bar or by obtaining the master key.
I’m aware of two recent mail truck/courier kidnappings in our area. One courier, after recovering from the ordeal, revealed, “They were after my blue box keys and keys for community mailbox systems.” Another devious method is cruising through neighborhoods, looking for raised mailbox flags. You might think the courier picked up your mail until you receive a call informing you that the bill you thought you paid is now delinquent. Over the summer, my neighbor alerted me to a car that had stopped in front of my house in the early morning hours, lights off and went to my mailbox to look inside. Thankfully, I had no outgoing mail.
So, how can you safeguard yourself or your business from falling victim to check fraud?
First and foremost, monitor your checking account diligently. Most banks offer free online and mobile banking, allowing you to conveniently check your account at any time. The sooner we detect unusual activity, the better the chances of recovering fraudulent funds. If you notice anything suspicious, don’t hesitate — contact the bank immediately or visit in person to voice your concerns. Also, the U.S. Postal Service has a website to report incidences at www.uspis.gov/report.
Additionally, avoid leaving large balances in your checking account. Plan your weekly/monthly expenses and maintain a balance with a reasonable buffer. Excess funds can be placed in a money market account, earning more interest and transferred to your checking account as needed.
When making check payments, use pens with ink that is difficult to remove. Find pens that bleed ink into the check paper, making alterations harder and often leaving smears, which can tip off bank tellers to potential tampering.
Ensure the security of your checks. Surprisingly, checkbooks are frequently stolen from unlocked cars or desks. For businesses, keep your list of authorized signers at the bank up to date. I could share numerous instances where business owners suspected third-party fraud, only to discover it was a disgruntled current or former employee.
For businesses, explore treasury services that can help combat fraud. Services such as “positive pay with payee match” scrutinize all your checks to clear against a list-issued checks. This allows quick identification of mismatches, enabling the bank to return fraudulent items promptly, often resulting in immediate credit to the customer’s account.
Consider minimizing the use of paper checks altogether by using the bank’s bill payment service. Billpay services rely on electronic payment methods like Automatic Clearing House (ACH) or virtual payment cards, ensuring secure transactions.
I know the rise of check fraud in Hampton Roads is concerning, but by staying vigilant and following these preventative measures, you can significantly reduce your risk. Protect your financial well-being and maintain peace of mind in an increasingly digital age.
Susan R. Ralston is executive vice president and chief operating officer at Old Point National Bank. She has served Hampton Roads financial services for more than 38 years. Ralston can be reached at email@example.com or