The property tax payment I owed to Ventura County last month went into my mailbox just one day before the due date, on Thursday afternoon, April 9.
I added another bill payment and put up the red flag and walked away, as I have done countless times in my life in Ventura County over the last 18 years. When I went out to fetch the mail on Friday, I noticed the flag was still up, but the mail was gone.
Still, I didn’t think too much of it.
After all, what could anyone — even a thief — do with a couple of checks, one made out to the property tax collector?
On Monday morning, just in case, I checked my bank account online, and discovered that someone using my account and name had written a check at a Walmart in Simi Valley for more than $300 worth of goods on Saturday, and on Sunday another check at a Target for nearly $400.
When I told officials at my local branch of Bank of America that someone had stolen a couple of my checks and was somehow using the information off them to write new checks, they were skeptical.
“It’s probably kids stealing out of the mailbox,” said Jill Adams, who has been with the bank’s Ojai branch for more than 20 years. “They wash the checks and use them again. We’ve had a lot of that lately.”
Adams added that if I reported the theft to the police, and they in turn gave me an official police report, that there would be “no liability,” meaning that I wouldn’t be responsible for paying the fraudulent checks.
When I went to the property tax collector of Ventura County and asked if they would forgive a late payment of my property taxes because the check had been stolen, they, too, scoffed at the idea, and said I would have to pay a 10 percent penalty. But they said that if I could show them a police report, they would forgive the penalty.
A day later, seven more checks were recorded by the bank’s automatic clearing house situation, and it became clear that someone had found a way to use my banking information to write new checks.
Having spent the last month attempting to clear up this mess of 21st-century thievery, let me tell you how this scam works, and how you can protect yourself.
The danger of the red flag
“You put that red flag up, and it’s like a beacon for thieves,” said Eric Buschow, a detective for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, working out of the Fillmore station. “Anything you put out there in the mailbox, especially credit card payments — it’s like giving away your personal information.”
Buschow explained that modern-day thieves need only your name, address, account number and the routing number printed on the bottom of most checks to make up checks of their own.
“If you go to Staples or Office Depot, you can get a check-printing program and magnetic ink. That and check paper and a laser printer, and you’re good to go,” he said. “It’s very common. It’s actually easier for thieves than washing the information off checks that have already been written. If consumers don’t keep an eye on their account, they may not know they’ve been robbed until they get their monthly statement.”
Buschow added that residential burglaries also spawn this kind of fraud. When wallets or purses are taken, thieves not only have access to credit cards and cash, but to the information they need to write checks on their victim’s account.
“This never used to be a big deal,” agreed Jim Graham, a detective who works in forgery and fraud, also out of the Fillmore station. “But now that we have more sophisticated computers, it’s extremely easy to pass checks.”
“Probably the crook made up a fake ID card with your name on it,” explained Detective Taurino Almazan, who is working my case. “Often, what they’ll do is pass a check and buy expensive items. Stores usually won’t take purchases back right away, but after 10 days or more, they’ll sometimes give cash back for returns; and then the thieves will take that and use it to go buy dope, which is usually what they want.”
Why phony check writers get away with it
Because the checks were written on my account, I could see the same information on them online that the bank could, including when the transaction took place, at what store, and the signature on the check. The signatures, which were not identical and which were written in several different towns, including Simi Valley, Oxnard and Ventura, looked flowery and feminine.
“This is not a male-dominated crime,” said Almazan. “It’s about 50-50, male and female. There’s no violence, it’s all paper work, and ex-secretaries can do it pretty well.”
Missing on most of the fraudulent checks was any identification, such as a driver’s license number.
“It all boils down to what b.s. story the they pass on to the clerks at the store,” said Almazan. “If they run the check with your information, it will be approved because the account is legitimate. Often the clerks are kids just out of high school, and they’re not too concerned about security.”
Almazan said that usually thieves will scout stores to observe how they handle checks. Stores with security cameras or stores that have a strict policy on IDs, thieves tend to avoid.
“A lot of clerks barely pay attention, and won’t even check for an ID number,” he said. “If the clerk does ask for a second ID, usually the thief will just run out the door.”
Writing the checks in numerous different towns forces the detectives to pass the case on to different law enforcement agencies, further lessening the chance the thief will be caught. But some modern-day security systems can allow detectives to look at individual transactions easily.
“The ideal situation for a detective is when you have the receipt of the transaction, the time and the transaction number. Some stores can match that automatically to a video clip and give us video footage of whoever is passing the check,” said Almazan. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the same person who stole the check, but it’s a start.”
Graham said that detectives pursuing the case usually can find the clerk who took the check, but often that leads nowhere.
“If the clerk doesn’t remember the transaction, or if we don’t have a video record, we’re really stuck,” he said. “It can be extremely frustrating.”
According to the accounting firm Ernst & Young, more than 500 million fraudulent checks are written every year in the U.S., out of a total of approximately 60 billion checks. The Nilson Report, a news service for the credit industry, estimated four years ago that check fraud cost the banking system more than $20 billion a year.
Even when a check-fraud crime results in an arrest, most prosecutors don’t pursue the case. According to banking industry statistics, 75 percent of check fraud cases are dropped, and up to 90 percent of such cases in urban areas that are plagued by more violent crimes. A Department of Justice survey in 2004 found a 2 percent imprisonment rate for check-fraud cases.
Graham added that “skimmers” — who use phony bank card machines to copy numbers off credit cards — can make even more money.
“That’s another tough one to fight, because credit cards are used so often, it’s difficult to track down the phony transaction,” he said. “Some of these operations are huge. It can be very profitable out there for thieves.”
“Every time we do arrest crooks, they tell us no one asks for ID anymore these days,” said Buschow. “If we don’t get a clear picture of the person passing the check, there’s usually not a lot we can do.”
Why no warning of the danger?
The detectives I talked with unanimously agreed that no one should ever use his or her mailbox to send out a check.
Why not warn people about the danger?
Renee Focht, an inspector and spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, said that the agency does tell people to give their mail to a delivery person, or to put it through the slot at a post office.
Detectives say the same thing, but they invariably add the warning not to use the red flag on your mailbox to send out any mail.
Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI office in Los Angeles, said that such a warning might make sense.
“Check fraud is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country,” she said. “Maybe the public should be more aware of the danger of using mailboxes, the way we have publicized identity theft. I haven’t heard that warning myself.”
“I don’t know why we don’t have that warning up on our Web site,” Focht said. “I don’t decide policy on a national level.”
Other innovative crimes
Check fraud is just one of a number of countless fraudulent crimes, and not the most imaginative.
“Public law enforcement is always playing the catch-up game,” said Almazan. “We learn how to work a crime, and we educate the public, and by then the crooks are already on to another scam.”
Graham mentioned a new con that preys on people who buy items online, at Craigslist or on eBay.
“A con man from Nigeria will buy an item and ‘mistakenly’ send a check for too much money, say $3,000,” said Graham. “The bank gets notice of the check, but because it takes time to clear, they don’t know it’s fraudulent. Then the buyer tells the seller in this country to go ahead and keep the money, but send back the $2,000 extra. If the seller does that, there’s nothing we can do, because Nigeria and some other countries do not cooperate with us on financial crimes.”
The financial downturn has also given thieves access to empty houses, which can be useful for credit card crime.
“Some of these guys will get ahold of credit card numbers, and place orders over the phone,” said Almazan. “They’ll use a vacant house, and wait for the UPS guy to show up. When he does, they’ll step out and sign a phony name. The UPS guy doesn’t suspect anything, and when we track the transaction, it usually goes to a computer at a place like Starbucks, where you can’t trace the log-in number.”
How to protect yourself
Bank officials and police officers agree: Checks are much less safe than e-banking.
“I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of problems with checks,” said Jill Adams, at the Bank of America. “I haven’t seen any of those kinds of theft or fraud problems with electronic banking.”
“The on-line billpay computer security has actually gotten very good,” said Buschow. “It’s encrypted, and other people don’t have access to your account the way they do with paper checks. If you do use snail mail, always mail it at the post office or a post office box, or give it directly to your mail carrier.”
This much is certain: Whatever you do, don’t put it in your mailbox and raise the flag.
“A crook could just happen to be driving by, see the flag up and say, ‘Hey, look, it’s my birthday today,’ ” said Almazan.