River Forest resident Michael Weldon-Linne is out over $15,000 after three checks of his were stolen from the mail. All three checks were deposited into unfamiliar accounts in amounts much higher than what he had written.
“All three of these checks were very, very obviously altered,” Weldon-Linne said.
He was able to view digital pictures of the checks through his bank accounts once they were deposited. It was there that Weldon-Linne saw that thief had whited out the recipient and amount on each check, writing new information on top. The thief made out the checks to three different parties and deposited them into, what Weldon-Linne called, “dummy accounts.”
“It wasn’t a sophisticated act,” said Weldon-Linne, who has reported the thefts to the banks, the U.S. Postal Service and to the River Forest Police Department.
The scam is known as “check washing,” so called because stolen checks are washed in chemicals to remove handwritten ink, allowing someone to change the payee name and the dollar amount. Scammers go through mail in search of checks. Stealing mail is a felony offense. Those convicted of mail theft could serve up to five years in prison.
Weldon-Linne’s first check was supposed to be a holiday tip for the man who delivers his newspaper, while the other two were real estate tax and water bill payments, respectively. Altogether, the three checks totaled a little over $2,000 — a lot less than what was taken from Weldon-Linne’s accounts.
Before the checks were stolen, Weldon-Linne dropped them into the U.S. Postal Service mailbox located outside of Concordia University on Augusta Street on New Year’s Eve. Weldon-Linne believes someone broke into the mailbox, taking checks from envelopes.
The Postal Service uses a universal key to open collection boxes and outdoor parcel lockers, according to the U.S. Postal Service. The keys are used on over 300,000 delivery and collection routes daily.
“That seemed kind of surprising to me until a policeman said, ‘Well, you know, imagine in the city of Chicago how many keys you’d have to have,’” he recalled.
Keys are returned to supervisors at the end of each shift. If a key is stolen or lost, public mailboxes are at risk of being accessed by people not employed by the Postal Service.
Postal Service spokesman Timothy Norman confirmed that the U.S. States Postal Inspection Service is investigating Weldon-Linne’s case. Norman also encouraged customers to drop outgoing mail in Postal Service collection boxes prior to the last daily pickup time listed on the box.
“Otherwise, it is recommended to mail it inside your local post office,” Norman said.
Weldon-Linne isn’t the only person whose checks were intercepted and changed. River Forest Police Chief James O’Shea told Wednesday Journal there were “at least a dozen” victims in River Forest during the holiday season. Police officers, however, cannot investigate.
“All of these incidents fall under federal jurisdiction, with the postal inspectors handling all complaints and incidents,” O’Shea said.
Bank investigators are also examining Weldon-Linne’s case. It was through his Charles Schwab investigator that Weldon-Linne learned he might not be the only one hit by the person who stole his checks.
“The Schwab investigator pointed out that the altered payees on the three checks are probably victims as well — names and other information purloined by identity theft and used to open dummy bank accounts to accept the proceeds of the forged checks,” Weldon-Linne said.
It could take up to 180 days for Weldon-Linne to get his money returned. And while he can afford to wait that long, others, he noted, may not be in a similarly stable financial situation.
“I’m fortunate to be in a position where this is just mostly an enormous pain in the ass,” he said. “I’m able to transfer money, and I didn’t bounce any checks, but I gotta believe for a lot of people, $15 grand would just be fatal.”