Q&A: More reasons to ditch paper checks

Dear Liz: Personal checks are not stolen while in transit; they’re stolen from mailboxes which are, for the most part, unprotected and not covered by security cameras. So, if you want your check to go through the mail, walk it into the post office. More than once I’ve found that previous mailers had just slipped their letters into the chute of the drive-up mailbox and driven off. In their ignorance or naivete they left their letters for the thieves, but I shoved their letters downward into the chute. One of my neighbors whined that someone altered a check that she had made out to “AT&T.” She left a lot of room on the payee line and that’s something one never wants to do.

Answer: Checks are not just stolen from unprotected mailboxes. Thieves have attacked mail carriers for keys to secure mailboxes. Checks also can be stolen in transit and from the recipients’ mailrooms. Even people who have mailed their payments at a post office have reported being the victims of check theft.

There are some ways to reduce your risk, but that doesn’t change the fact that writing checks is a risky habit.

Take a moment to look at your checks. Each one is printed with your name, account number and bank routing number. That’s all the information a thief needs to create new checks and make fraudulent payments.

Also, check washers can remove all the writing from your checks except for the signature, so just filling out the payee line won’t prevent fraud. (If you must write a check, consider using a gel pen, because the gel is generally harder to remove with solvents than ballpoint ink.)

Electronic payments, by contrast, offer a secure way to pay that’s faster and easier to track than a check through the mail. Electronic payment options are nearly ubiquitous now, so it’s a good time to break the bad habit of writing checks.

Q&A: Here’s a 2024 resolution: Stop using paper checks. Fraud is soaring

Dear Liz: I had several checks stolen from the U.S. Postal Service. The thieves altered and cashed the checks. I monitor my bank accounts religiously and discovered the altered checks quickly. I immediately put holds on the checks and for the most part I have been reimbursed. One check, however, was written out to one bank for $4,339 and then cashed through another bank. The first bank told me they were pursuing the second bank for payment, and that when they get reimbursed, I’ll get reimbursed. I’ve been waiting since October 2022! Recently I received a letter from the first bank saying, in effect, that the other bank hasn’t responded so they consider the case closed. Basically, I’m out the money. This is obvious fraud and no one is taking it seriously.

Answer: Check fraud is soaring even as the use of checks has declined. Thieves take signed checks from mailboxes, sometimes using keys stolen from mail carriers, and “wash” them with common solvents such as nail polish remover. Once the checks dry, they change the amounts and payees and then cash the altered checks.

If you report the problem to your bank promptly — typically within 30 to 60 days of your statement date, depending on state law — then you should be made whole.

You can start by making a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau online or by calling (855) 411-2372. The CFPB has a pretty good track record of getting companies to respond.

Also, please look into other payment methods. Electronic payments are much more secure as well as faster and easier to trace.