Have you heard of check washing scams? These scams are one of the dangers of using checks instead of a credit card. This true story was sent to me by one of my readers. It begins when she mailed a check for twelve dollars to a charity in November. That one kind act set her up for a series of hits that just haven’t stopped.
The annual contribution
Like many people, Pat (not her real name) loves those calendars many charities send out. She mailed her annual contribution in November. The check was not cashed, and she didn’t receive the calendar. Assuming the check had been lost in the mail, she sent a second check. The good news is the calendar soon arrived. The bad news came months later.
Check washing scams can clean you out instantly
In late February, Pat wrote to me and said, “Last week my first $12 check was apparently ‘washed.’ They withdrew $6,950.50 from my bank account. It took me 5 hours to go from police, to bank, to notary, back to bank, back to police with 3 trips in between to go home and check on mom.”
Pat, who is the caretaker for her 89-year-old mother, can’t stay away from home for more than a couple of hours. She finds the entire process very frustrating. She said, “The police aren’t doing anything. The bank has 10 business days for their fraud dept to get back to me. The bank said even if I had put a stop on the check it would have been cashed anyway.”
Down the rabbit hole
You might think that’s the end of the story, but it’s only the beginning. Pat woke up one night wondering if the check washers might have tried to get credit in her name. As she discovered, having some credit is sometimes better than having none.
“I don’t have any credit cards,” Pat said. “I tried online and couldn’t freeze my credit. I must have made a dozen calls, and no one would help me. Then I remembered AAA has free credit monitoring. I went in there. It was a 45 minute wait, but when I started crying, they took me right away. We found since I don’t have ANY credit, that’s why I couldn’t freeze it on line. The man told me how to go to each of the 3 credit company websites and contact them direct.”
One of the credit companies handled things for Pat over the phone. Another made her fax all the information. The third is requiring her to file her request via postal mail. Pat said, “Just what I want, my social security number and everything else in postal mail. And there’s no way to talk to someone there. They also want a copy of the police report.”
Police not always helpful
For all the effort Pat put in when this debacle started, she didn’t realize she’d need a police report. The officer she spoke with didn’t tell her how to get one and didn’t seem interested in making that process easier. Pat said, “The officer said there isn’t a police report, but gave me a phone number to call to get one, which makes no sense to me. I’ll be trying to get that today. The officer was totally not helpful at all and didn’t seem to listen or write down anything I said correctly.”
When Pat tried to get a copy of the police report, they told her it was not ready and she needed to call each day. As of last week, Pat was still trying to get her credit frozen at all three companies. After getting different answers from different agents, she escalated her calls to supervisors—and discovered it may not even be possible to freeze her credit accounts since she has nothing to freeze.
Fortunately, Pat decided to speak to a senior help attorney. The attorney she met with discovered the bank had filled out the wrong paperwork. She spent another four hours at the bank, finally meeting with the manager to correct the situation. After that, she called the bank’s fraud department—six phone calls later, she still doesn’t know if she’ll get her money back.
5 Tips for victims of credit theft
1) Get a police report or report the crime at IdentityTheft.gov immediately after something like this happens. The police won’t want to deal with such a “mundane” issue, but a police report is essential for dealing with everyone from the credit card companies to individual creditors who may come knocking on your door.
2) Get help! You’ll need it to get through all the red tape. Seek the help of an attorney. Be careful, though. You could easily sink under the weight of attorney fees. Do an Internet search for “Legal Aid near me” for starters.
3) Freeze your credit. Nat’s story shows just how difficult this can be. If you have credit, it should be easy to handle this task online. If you don’t this may not even be possible.
4) Pat discovered an anti-fraud pen that prevents thieves from washing a check. However, in one of her phone calls with the bank’s fraud department, she was told that the pens are not always effective at preventing check washing scams. My advice would be that if you don’t have a credit card, see if your bank offers an online bill pay service. It should be more secure than writing checks and mailing them.
5) I highly recommend getting a credit card and paying it off every month with an electronic payment made direct from your checking account. You’ll have 60 days to dispute any fraudulent charges on that card, which can be a huge relief if something happens.