Scammers don’t need to be master hackers to bust into your bank account. A pen and paper can be enough — especially if the paper comes from a lost or stolen checkbook.
Cyber crimes may rule the headlines, but old-school scams are making a comeback — and some of them never really went away. Check fraud, for example, is one of the oldest forms of payment fraud and one of the most persistent. About 87 percent of financial professionals said their companies experienced check fraud, according to the 2013 Payments Fraud and Control survey.
“One of the simplest and most prevalent ways to commit financial crime, to steal money, is to commit some form of check fraud,” said James Freis Jr., former director of FinCEN, an agency of the Treasury Department.
Check fraud continues to be a problem for a number of reasons. Billions of checks are processed every year, making it challenging to do a review of each check to prevent fraud. Plus, criminals now have easy access to basic desktop publishing tools, increasing their chances of success.
A Retiree’s Story
Check fraud was the last thing on William Barker’s mind when he reviewed his bank account balance to make sure his monthly retirement check had been deposited. It had arrived safely, but he noticed something else: A check for $4,500 had been cashed. It bore his wife’s signature and a note that read “1984 motor home.”
There was just one problem: Barker and his wife didn’t buy a 1984 motor home.
When the doors of his bank opened that morning, Barker was there to dispute the transaction and begin the tedious process of recovering his money.
“For us, $4,500 is a lot of money,” he said. “We’ve always been real vigilant about our finances, so this was quite a blow.”
Fortunately, Barker’s home insurance policy provided him with identity management services at no cost, and Barker got some help from a fraud investigator, who made sure he followed these steps to help protect his credit:
- File a police report.
- Dispute the transaction with his bank, close his account and open a new one to avoid future fraud.
- Place a 90-day fraud alert on his credit file.
- Inquire with ChexSystems to see if anyone had tried to open bank accounts with his information.
Barker’s bank ultimately restored the funds to his account, but he and his wife are still on guard for suspicious activity on all their accounts.
Protecting Yourself From Check Fraud
Here are some tips for consumers to protect themselves against check fraud.
- Keep your checks in a secure location. Don’t leave them in a car, at work or out in the open at home.
- Review your checking accounts regularly for suspicious activity.
- Pick up new checks at a local bank branch. Avoid having them sent by mail.
- Never include personal data on the check. That includes your Social Security number, driver’s license number, phone number and address.
- Drop bills paid with checks at the post office instead of in your mailbox.
Barker has taken it one step further. “If you can avoid it, don’t use checks at all,” said Barker, who now uses debit cards instead of checks. “It’s just not worth it.”