December 21, 2015

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How to Prevent Identity Theft When Mailing Holiday Checks

Although I lean toward online bill payment, I tend to dust off my checkbook for the holidays — mainly for charities that don’t let you give via their websites along with young family members who are thrilled to get a check tucked into their glittery cards.

But this year, I found myself hesitating before pressing my ballpoint pen into action. Could my checks actually present a risk to me, considering how much information they contain? Unfortunately, the answer is sometimes yes.

Check Scams

Checks not only feature your name, address, and bank account number, but they could also give identity thieves an example of your signature. Because of this, two common check scams are gaining momentum:

  • Check washing is a form of check fraud that involves removing the ink from a check. Criminals apply a protective coating over the signature and then use an acetone wash to remove the remaining unprotected ink. This allows a scammer to rewrite the check, generally for a larger amount of money and to a different recipient, using your signature.
  • Gift-sifting is the practice of stealing greeting cards from residential mailboxes. Criminals can quickly sort through someone’s mail and grab holiday greeting cards that may contain cash or checks. Once stolen, checks can be washed or used to make online purchases. The information on your checks is often all a criminal needs to use your bank account for online purchases.

Protection Tips

With these scams in mind, I considered abandoning my yearly check-writing ritual. But instead, I realized that it would take just a few simple steps to help prevent identity theft and check scams. In order to minimize risks, here are some tactics that can help:

  • Get a pen that contains ink injected with special pigments that make the ink impenetrable to various check-washing techniques. Here’s one example.
  • Write “For deposit only to account of payee” on the endorsement line of your checks. This will make it very difficult for a thief to sign over the check to someone else.
  • Take any mail containing a check to the post office instead of putting it in your mailbox for your postal carrier to pick up. Many criminals target this kind of unprotected, outgoing mail, especially during the holidays.
  • Mail any card containing a check to a secure address, if possible. Commercial addresses or post office boxes have a higher level of security.
  • Consider mailing checks separately from holiday cards. Rather than enclosing a check in a card, send a separate, plain envelope with the check wrapped in thick paper or use a security envelope.
  • Share these tips with your friends, especially those who also send checks to charities and family members regularly.

Check scams and identity thieves don’t need to force you into shredding your checkbook for good, as long as you employ some strategies designed to keep your information safe. Give generously while avoiding the grinches by making it safer to mail your checks this holiday season.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jridgewayphotography.

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Heidi Daitch

Director, Strategic Programs at IdentityForce
Heidi is a busy working mom who juggles many of the same responsibilities and challenges at home and at work - a long list of things to do and not enough time to do everything. With so little time, Heidi tries hard to find simple, but effective strategies to save time for what’s really important – spending time with her family.
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