Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Expert
As opening new lines of credit becomes more difficult, identity thieves are gravitating toward check fraud.
Check fraud is a billion dollar problem. As predicted by the Identity Theft Resource Center, check fraud, which accounted for 12% of financial crimes in 2007, increased to 17% in 2008. According to the American Bankers Association Deposit Account Fraud Survey Report, $969 million were stolen via check fraud in 2006, up from a reported $677 million in 2003. Of the $969 million dollars lost to check fraud, 38% was stolen through return deposit scams, 27% was stolen using cloned checks, 28% was stolen using counterfeit checks, and 7% was stolen by altering or washing checks.
In an article in The New York Post, a brazen ring of thieves enlisted crooked bank tellers to run a check fraud scheme that was brought down when the crooks made the mistake of forging checks from a NYPD account. Two criminal hacker ringleaders organized the counterfeit scam, using 950 “soldiers,” or “mules,” to deposit and cash counterfeit checks, netting them millions of dollars. Three bank tellers were involved, stealing and selling customer profiles which included names, Social Security numbers, and account numbers. Insider identity theft of this kind accounts for up to 70% of all instances of identity theft.
Check fraud victims include banks, businesses and consumers themselves. Our current system for cashing checks is somewhat flawed. Checks can be cashed and merchandise can be purchased even when there is no money in the checking account.
I presented a program on motivation and self-improvement at a women’s prison in Massachusetts a few years back. I requested a little background on the women I was speaking to, just because I watch too many movies and I wanted to know if there was any possibility I’d get shanked. The case worker informed me that about 80% of the women were incarcerated for check fraud and shoplifting. It seems that when some people get a checkbook, they consider it an opportunity to print money.
There are numerous forms of check fraud:
Forged signatures are the easiest form of check fraud. These are legitimate checks with a forged signature. This can occur when a checkbook is lost or stolen, or when a home or business is burglarized. An individual who is invited into your home or business can rip a single check from your checkbook and pay themselves as much as they like. Banks don’t often verify signatures until a problem arises that requires them to assign liability.
Forged endorsements generally occur when someone steals a check and cashes or deposits it. There’s really nothing anyone can do to protect themselves from this, aside from guarding their checks and going over their bank statements carefully.
Counterfeit checks can be created by anyone with a desktop scanner and printer. They simply create a check and make it out to themselves. In order to prevent your checks from being counterfeited, make sure you shred all canceled checks before throwing them away, and be sure to lock up any checks in your home or office. Consider a locked mailbox so nobody can access your bank statements. You should also seriously consider using online banking exclusively, and discontinuing paper statements.
Check kiting or check floating usually involves two bank accounts, where money is transferred back and forth, so that they appear to contain a balance which can then be withdrawn. A check is deposited in one account, then cash is withdrawn despite the lack of sufficient funds to cover the check. In this case, it’s generally the bank or whoever cashed the check that gets burnt, unless they are able to go after the person who used their own account.
Check washing involves altering a legitimate check, changing the name of the payee and often increasing the amount. This is the sneakiest form of check fraud. When checks or tax-related documents are stolen, either from the mail or by other means, the ink can be erased using common household chemicals such as nail polish remover. This allows the thieves to endorse checks to themselves. In this case, something as simple and inexpensive as a select uni-ball pen can help. Select uni-ball pens contain specially formulated gel ink (trademarked Uni-Super Ink™) that is absorbed into the paper’s fibers and can never be washed out. The pen costs two bucks and is available at any office supply store.
If you write a check to pay a bill and then put it in your mailbox for the postal carrier to deliver, you put yourself at a higher risk for check fraud. Thieves see that red flag up and go phishing for checks. I suggest using a uni-ball pen and taking checks directly to the post office, or dropping them in a big blue mailbox.
If you plan to do any online banking, which millions do, make sure your PC is protected with McAfee anti-virus software and all your critical security patches in your operating system are up to date.
Robert Siciliano identity theft speaker discussing identity fraud and security