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Be the One That Got Away From Identity Thieves

Low-tech “fishers” troll mailboxes for your checks

mailbox fishing

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

With Tax Day nearing, online thieves—commonly known as phishers—are hard at work trying to steal your money and your identity with e-mails falsely claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service.

But when you use a mailbox instead of a computer for your tax forms and checks, you face another potential risk, thanks to the lesser-known scam of “fishing.”

For their sport, all these trollers need is about $10 in supplies that can be purchased in any hardware store. They can use these materials to drop a line into a mailbox and snag an envelope with a check, says Sgt. Brent Barbee of the Amarillo, Texas, Police Department. Some thieves don’t even bother with the equipment, Barbee says, and simply break into locked drop boxes or reach through their openings.

Fishing for your check

The hoped-for catch is your check, which can be “washed.” It’s placed in a pan of chemicals with tape protecting your signature. After a soaking, the fishers remove the tape, and they have a blank check, signed by you … as well as your bank account number to use fraudulently.

Mailbox fishing is not widespread; it’s primarily done by drug addicts in need of quick cash. The Amarillo police recently arrested a man who had in his possession 20 checks that had been removed from mail­boxes. “I can’t imagine how this is not happening elsewhere,” Barbee tells Scam Alert.

Fishing is “occurring sporadically across the country, but predominantly in the Southwest,” says Peter Rendina of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, which combats mail-related scams. “When we identify an area that has this issue, we install anti-fishing devices inside collection boxes,” he said, referring to interior panels that block access to mail.

In part because of these and other efforts by the USPIS—considered by many scam prevention experts to be among the most proactive federal agencies fighting consumer fraud—fishing and other mail theft schemes now account for only about 2 percent of identity theft, compared with about 4 percent a few years ago.

With mailboxes now filling with tax forms containing a treasure trove of information for identity thieves, here are ways to protect yourself when receiving or sending mail:

Tips for mail safety

• Use a blue U.S. Postal Service drop box instead of leaving mail containing checks in your own mailbox for pickup. Thieves cruise neighborhoods looking for upraised flags on home mailboxes. The best defense: Deliver mail inside a post office, or hand it directly to your mail carrier.

• If you must use a drop box, choose a busy location. Those outside a post office are sometimes under camera surveillance. And deposit mail as close as possible to posted collection times, says Linda Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

• Use a “gel” pen to write checks. Many, such as Uniball pens, contain a special ink that’s more resistant to check-washing.

• If you suspect a fishing ploy, call the Postal Service toll-free at 1-877-876-2455 and choose option 2. You’ll get a voice prompt for a ZIP code, and a duty inspector will get on the phone.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/ Sterling.