National Check Fraud Center

Check Washing
What is It?

Check washing takes place to the tune of $815 million every year in the U.S. And it is increasing at an alarming rate.

Using a process known as check washing, mail snatchers erase the ink on a check with chemicals found in common household cleaning products or on the shelves of your local Walmart and then rewrite the checks to themselves, increasing the amount payable by hundreds and even thousands of dollars.

Types of Chemicals Reported Used:

  1. Acetone, most widely used, is a highly volatile organic solvent used mainly as a hand-wipe solvent in cleaning applications. It is also a good drying agent for wet parts. But it will erase most inks from a stolen check without any noticeable effect.

    Reading the remarks on side of a can of Acetone, you will find out it effectively removes some greases, oils, waxes, and inks. It is commonly used to remove uncured fiberglass resins, varnish, and lacquer and may be useful for applications that require a highly volatile cleaner. Acetone may be applied by hand wipe or immersion in an unheated tank;

  2. Benzene,

  3. Bleach, used in ever day cleaning in your home. Normally to whiten fibers in clothes washing.

  4. Carbon Tetrachloride, most widely used in carpet cleaning,

  5. Chloromice "T", a mild form of bleach, used normally in the socking of baby diapers,

  6. Fox "IT", used mostly with stamp collectors,

  7. Clear Correction Fluids,

  8. A high-performance eraser to erase everything from ballpoint pen ink, PPC and Diazo copy ink, to typewriter ribbon ink, drafting ink, and printed matter.

Problem at hand:

One woman became so adept at the technique she prowled the streets with a portable computer, printer and laminating machine in her car, cranking out new identification each time she swiped a batch of bills. Of course she had to take the time to wash the ink from the two vital areas of the check, making sure she doesn't tamper with the written signature.

The problem has grown so severe that many local and federal authorities have formed task forces around the country, with agents from the Postal Inspection Service, U.S. attorney's office, local police forgery units, FBI and Secret Service.

They offer the following advice to people with old-fashioned mailboxes:

Recent Case:

Reported by the Sun-Sentinel on March 18, 1998, Postal investigators, working with police in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, busted one of the largest check-washing gangs in South Florida history on March 12, 1998.

During a 14-month period, the gang stole the mail of 177 people, separated the checks, sullied them, changed the amounts and assumed fake names to cash them for a total of $650,000 at 27 banks and credit unions.

The average doctored check was $490, but the gang often got ambitious, once altering a $2,000 check and cashing it for $24,000.

Investigators, the Sun-Sentinel reported, are in the process of arresting 110 people, mostly from Hialeah and Miami Springs. Arrest warrants were issued for 11 more gang members. All will be charged with at least two state felonies: grand theft and uttering a forged statement. Check washing takes place to the tune of $815 million every year in the U.S.

The Red Flag:

U.S. postal inspectors report an epidemic of mail thefts in the United States and even in other foreign countries, much of it the result of drug users who are spreading the word. However, it has been reported that some bad postal workers are getting into the act. Thieves swipe outgoing checks from mailboxes when they see the red flag up. The bad postal worker removes the check from the "postal bag".

According to a local postal inspector, even U.S. Postal Service collection boxes can be targeted by thieves who wait until the boxes fill up on weekends and then reach inside to rifle letters.

Another problem is when residents leave outgoing mail containing checks in the mailbox before going to work. The thieves will steal a check in the morning and then cashed the stolen check by the afternoon.

Who suffers:

Check washing costs banks and merchants "hundreds of thousands of dollars" a year, and ultimately, we, the consumer, pays for that in higher fees or prices.

If the check was in the mail but creditors are hounding you for payment, it may be that some clever mail thieves snagged your check to pay their own debts.

Recent News Articles:

Copyright - Times Publishing Co. May 15, 1998

A California woman was arrested Wednesday night on charges she pilfered personal checks from mailboxes and altered the checks with chemicals to cash them.

Anita Lucille Okelberry, 35, who is from Oakland but has no local address, faces eight counts each of forgery, uttering a forged instrument and grand theft. She is accused of stealing checks from mailboxes in Hudson and New Port Richey, washing the ink off with chemicals and filling in her own name and inflated dollar amounts.

Okelberry was being held at the county jail in Land O'Lakes in lieu of $90,000 bail. Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the arrest marks a first in Pasco County in connection with this type of forgery, though it is familiar to authorities in the western United States.

Positive Protective Measures:

Check Security Features:

Most of the check manufactures have enhanced their check stock to combat Counterfeiting and of course Check Washing. This is the main reason that you should always purchase your supply of business and personal checks from a company who has implemented security enhanced check stock.

Even some of the mail-order companies have included some security measures in their check stock. Before you purchase your new supply, ask what security measures have been adopted into their check stock, both overt (visible) and covert (hidden) characteristics to alert check handlers and to discourage the check fraud artists.

More Banks are beginning to require their business customers to adopt what is called due diligence procedures that will minimizes their exposure to check fraud. One of the easiest ways for companies to meet the ordinary care provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code is to implement paper-based security measures.

If you are in doubt about the purchase of your checks with security features included, have your local bank discuss the protective issues with you. You want to protect your documents against chemical alteration, erasure, toner removal, photocopying , and counterfeiting .

New Security Features Available:

Check manufactures help deter check fraud by making checks difficult to copy, alter, or counterfeit by using some or all of the following security measures:


If you are a ballpoint pen lover, switch to black ink when security is important. Among water-based inks, remember that gels are the most impervious. But when you're writing checks to pay the monthly bills, only one type of ink, the kind in gel pens, has been found to be counterfeit proof to acetone or any other chemical used in "check washing." Most ballpoint and marker inks are dye based, meaning that the pigments are dissolved in the ink.

Based on recent ink security studies, we highly recommend that you use a gel pen, like the Uniball 207 that uses gel ink that contains tiny particles of color that are trapped into the paper, making check washing a lot more difficult. The pen sells for about $2. Personally I sign all my checks and important documents with one. But if you don't want to switch, do not hesitate to to use your favorite fountain pen. Just fill it with ink in one of the more durable colors and enjoy!


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