CAPE CORAL, Fla. The first indication for Julie Riddle was the fraudulent charges to her bank account.
She contacted her bank, filed a police report and monitored her account.
But the damage was already done.
“Over $7,000. Yeah, the first check was $2,300,” the retiree sighed. “We’re having to change all of our direct deposits. We’re having to watch the account because up to a a week- and-a-half ago, there were still fraudulent checks coming in.”
Scammers cleaned out her bank account by appearing to wash out one check, and in another instance, recreated her checks using her personal information.
“As long as they’ve got your routing number and your account number, all bets are off, all bets are,” she said.
How criminals get you
Riddle was a victim of check washing, when a criminal steals a real check, removes all ink except for the signature, then make the check out to themselves.
The practice is “really simple to do,” said Carrie Kerskie, director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University.
An online search by Kerskie produced multiple tutorials on how to do it.
Using household chemicals, the ink can be removed in a matter of minutes.
“They’re going to wash all that information off except for your signature and they’re going to write in paid to themselves and change the dollar amount,” she said.
The best defense is to use a security pen, Kerskie said.
“When you go to buy a pen it will say on there anti-check washing or it’s a security pen,” she said. “The ink in that has been found it cannot be removed through these substances where regular ball point ink and even some sharpies, can be removed by this chemical substance.”
Several stores sell the pens, including Walmart, which has a two-pack for $2.74.
Fraud still possible?
While the pen can prevent ink removal, it won’t prevent using one’s routing and account numbers to make new, fraudulent checks.
For Julie Riddle, criminals printed checks with her account information, but made one spelling mistake with her husband’s name.
“Brain. His name is Brian and it turned into Brain,” she said.
During tax season, Kerskie said consumers should look out for “fishing.”
“[Scammers] know people are going to start mailing their tax returns closer to the April deadline,” she said. “They will actually go fishing and I’m not talking the “ph” type phishing, with the emails. Good, old fashion, rod and reel.”
Crooks will put a sticky string down mailboxes and try to catch your mail, she said.
“If you’re going to use one of those big blue boxes, use one closest to the door of the post office or better yet put it in the inside of the post office because it’s going to be more difficult for them [the scammers] to do it inside the post office,” she said.
Same goes for those making electronic payments, Kerskie said.
“If you authorize your bank to send payments, out at a certain times, sometimes they may send those payments out in the form of a check,” she explained.
Kerskie advises consumers to regularly check their bank accounts and purchase security checks that have features indicating it was tampered with.
Another big tip – register your online accounts.
“If you’re not online, you have a greater risk of becoming a victim and here’s why, because if you’re not setting up those online accounts, you’re leaving it wide open for a criminal to come in and set them up on your behalf,” she said. “Now they have remote access to your accounts and they can do whatever they want with them.”
After alerting her bank, Riddle was told it could take at least 20 days to get her funds back.
A volunteer at WINK News Call for Action suggested using social media to get a more immediate response.
She posted her situation on her bank’s Facebook page. Someone from the bank responded immediately and resolved the issue.