On Aug. 25, the local CBS affiliate, Channel 3, ran a story about recent break-ins of blue post office boxes. Add me to the list of victims.
On Aug. 25, the local CBS affiliate, Channel 3, ran a story on both the 5 o'clock and 11 o'clock news about recent break-ins of blue post office boxes in the Marlton, NJ, area and subsequent “washing” of checks – which means someone deleted the original writing with a chemical agent and added new names and amounts. This crime resulted in at least 30 victims and the loss of more than $160,000. One police officer even said he saw a culprit breaking into a box and photographed him with his body camera but said he did not want to follow the suspect in a high-speed chase for fear of endangering pedestrians and other drivers.
Local readers will be more than familiar with the issue, as this paper has published a number of stories about people who’ve experienced the exact same problem.
And now I’m one of them.
I recently received my monthly bank statement from Citizens Bank in Chestnut Hill. I had mailed a check on July 17 for $88 to PECO for our monthly electric bill, but when I received our bank statement from the bank on Aug. 9, I could not help but notice that my PECO check had been stolen and "washed." It had been made out to someone named Jeremiah Ransom for $1,818.23 and subsequently cashed, although the signature was an obvious forgery. In fact, the first letter of my first name had been written as a “P” instead of an “L.”
The $1,818.23 was taken out of our joint checking account. On the bottom left of the check, it was noted that the $1,818.23 was for “basement/remodel.” I could not help but think that if a bank employee would actually see our basement, he or she would know that it has not been “remodeled” in more than 50 years.
In many of the articles written by Chestnut Hill Local reporter Tom Beck about this depressing phenomenon, there is some advice for readers to mail envelopes that contain checks from inside the post office, dropping it directly into the slot rather than putting them in the big blue boxes on the street.
This is because many of the reports of stolen checks have thus far involved mail dropped into one of those boxes.
Because of the scary articles I had read, since March of this year I have mailed all of my envelopes, including those containing checks, through the mail slot inside the post office at 7782 Crittenden St. near Mermaid Lane in Chestnut Hill. I have not used the blue boxes.
Naturally, I was distressed about $1,818.23 being stolen out of our joint checking account. The first thing I did was call PECO and was told, of course, that they had not received my payment. So I paid the July bill by phone, and they charged me “a late fee” of about $2.50, which I found rather amusing since I have never been late with a PECO payment since moving to Mt. Airy 52 years ago.
I went to Citizens Bank the following day, and the manager took a report. I asked a few questions about the bank's policy regarding these thefts, and how common they are.
Due to my status as a long-time customer (ever since the bank opened about 25 or more years ago), I was given candid answers.
But when I called back later and said I wanted to do an article about this issue for the Local, I was told that only a Citizens Bank corporate media relations specialist could answer my questions on the record. After a few tries, I did get to speak to Megan McLean, a media relations specialist for Citizens Bank, who said she would get back to me with answers.
The following day she called back and said, “We do not comment on specific customers, but I can tell you that this is a growing concern. We train all of our employees on ways to spot potential fraud. We want to do right by our customers. We take this issue very seriously. We have a fraud department with specialists, and we work closely with other banks to deal with this problem.”
According to the National Check Fraud Center, check washing costs bank customers, banks, and insurance companies more than $800 million every year, and their website says this number “is increasing at an alarming rate.”
Banks have insurance against this kind of check theft fraud, and McLean said a bank that cashes a “washed” check is responsible for reimbursing the theft victim, not the bank whose check was mailed by an unsuspecting customer (unless it's the same bank that cashes it).
I also called the postal inspector's office at 877-876-2455 and gave all the details to a very sympathetic lady named Jessica. A few days later I received a form from the postal inspectors that I filled out with the details of the theft and mailed it back (through the mail slot in the Crittenden Street post office).
I also called the 14th Police District and was told that criminal complaints cannot be taken over the phone. The complainant must come to the police station in person. So the following day I went to the police station at Germantown Avenue and Haines Streets in Germantown and gave the information to a police officer, who gave me a receipt for the report.
In a subsequent conversation with McLean, she revealed that it was Citizens Bank that cashed the fraudulent check. Perhaps the teller who gave the money away needs re-training. McLean did say the bank would put the $1,818.23 back into our account since they were responsible for giving it away.
According to its website, Citizens Financial Group, Inc. is one of the nation’s oldest and largest financial institutions, with $222.3 billion in assets as of June 30, 2022. They have 1,100 branches and 3,400 ATMs in 14 states in the New England, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the country.
I realize that, to people who are sitting on so many billions, my stolen $1,818.23 might not seem like a very big deal. But for us little folks, it seems like banking on banks to keep an eye on our money might not be such a good bet.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org