Wellesley resident Sue Kinney was running the type of basic errand she’s run dozens of times before. She drove up to the exterior United States Postal Service (USPS) post office boxes at Wellesley Square, opened her car window, and tossed in a stamped envelope containing a check to cover recent services from her landscaper. Kinney didn’t give the matter another thought until the weekend of Nov. 9 when she received an invoice from the landscaper that showed an outstanding balance.
“This was confusing because I remembered sending him a check about a week earlier, dropping it into the outside mailbox at the Grove Street post office. I wondered whether the mail was delayed and my check had crossed with his invoice. Upon logging in to the bank, I noticed that my checking account was overdrawn.”
Kinney looked for details and found the photo of the check she had made out to the landscaper in early November. It had been blatantly forged. Kinney’s initial alarm turned to shock that her bank had neither flagged the crudely signed check, nor notified her. “Nothing about my banking pattern fit here; the forgery should have been immediately flagged by the bank and I should have been contacted.”
So what should have been a simple bill-paying situation turned into a banking nightmare. The $400 check she had dropped into the Grove Street mailbox had been intercepted and was forged from the original amount to a steep four-figure increase. Thieves get away with this type of crime by employing a scam called fishing, and it works pretty well, from a criminal’s point of view. From a bank customer’s point of view, the situation is less rosy. It’s not uncommon for the problem to take weeks or months to sort out. Even worse, there is usually no guarantee that victims will get their money back. Generally, they are simply advised to file a police report. From there, victims can find themselves in the middle of a bureaucratic nightmare as they try to recover their funds.
How fishing works
Westchester County in New York was one of the first areas on the East Coast to be targeted by the scam. That state’s District Attorney notes “Fishing, also known as check washing is an “easy way for someone to turn ‘your’ money into ‘their’ money. It’s the chemical erasing of the handwritten parts of
the check you have written. Criminals remove the ‘payee’ portion and the ‘amount’. They use solvents such as acetone, brake fluid and bleach. Once the check is ‘washed’, the payee and/or the amount of the check can be altered. The thief often inflates the amount. $45 dollars becomes $645 dollars, as an example.”
To get ahold of the checks in the first place, thieves use a low-tech method. The thieves use wire to which they attach sticky mouse traps. They then lower the homemade burglary tool into the mailbox and pull up all the envelopes they can. In one iteration of the scam, the thieves often find gullible “mules” (18+ college-age kids or elderly folks) who are willing to have their own names listed on the checks as the payees. The mules then sign the checks and cash them for a cut. The problem for the mules comes in long after their paltry payday, because when police catch up to the signees of the checks, it is the mules who get arrested. The fishing perps are long gone.
Wellesley mailboxes are popular fishing spots
Wellesley mailboxes have been targeted since early August, says Mark D’Innocenzo from the Wellesley Police Department Bureau of Criminal Investigation, “We started receiving numerous check fraud reports in early October — we were aware of mailbox fishing from similar incidents in numerous Metro-Boston communities since July – August. With this info in hand, working backwards, we have documented fishing incidents starting on August 24, 2019 in Wellesley. We have identified numerous dates from August 24 through the mailbox changeover that we suspect fishing took place.”
In response to fishing scams, the USPS has moved toward eliminating the pull-down handles of the iconic royal-blue boxes in favor of a slender mail slot. Those slender slots are not exactly intuitive. When one of the new boxes appeared over the summer outside the Linden Square CVS, it took me some time one day to figure out how to stuff my letters into the box. In a world of rush and hurry, the USPS has embraced a kind of slow-mailbox movement. There’s only one way to get your correspondence inside the new boxes. One. Letter. At. A. Time. Thanks to fishing, you can no longer pull down the mailbox handle, plop a huge stack of holiday cards into the gaping maw, and go on your way as your seasons greetings tumble into the belly of the mailbox beast. There is no more handle. There will be no more plop-and-gulp.
There are 72 collection boxes in Wellesley. Any of the 72 boxes that have not already been replaced or retrofitted will be in the near future.
Change has been a long time coming
To enhance security and to protect the public and postal employees, mailboxes have been put on a diet since 1996. At that time, packages weighing 16 ounces or more were no longer accepted in the boxes and instead had to be presented in person to a postal clerk or letter carrier. In 2007, the weight allowance for mailboxes was decreased to 13-ounces or more for all anonymous mail. Restrictions have recently been further updated, and effective October 1, 2019, packages with stamps as postage that are more than one-half inch thick and/or weigh more than 10 ounces must now be taken to a postal retail counter. If a restricted package or mail piece is found in a collection box, mail chute or post office lobby mail slot after October 1 it will be returned to the sender with a Customer Return Label attached explaining the restrictions and reason for return.
Kinney just wishes she’d heard sooner that Wellesley mailboxes had been targeted since August. By the time she was targeted, many others in town had been affected. Unfortunately, no town-wide alert was issued, and there was no recommendation that people should avoid the boxes and walk their mail into post offices. This frustrated many residents who feel there should have been sone outreach on the part of the post office and the police department. Kinney’s story ultimately had a happy ending. Her small, local bank came through for her. While the check appeared to have been cashed, and the money was removed from her account, the bank was able to intercept the funds.
The Wellesley Police have roughly ten open check fraud investigations that they suspect are from mail fishing, and they believe there are likely more that have not been reported to them. “We are working with numerous local agencies, as well as the US Postal Inspection Service to follow up on these incidents,” D’Innocenzo said.
He added that most blue mailboxes along Washington Street from Newton to Wellesley Square have been affected at one time or another. Since the changeover to the new boxes he says, “We have not taken additional reports — however, the change was in early November, and reports tend to come in about a month after the fact, when people see their bank statements.”
How to keep your mail off the hook
- Hand outgoing mail to your letter carrier, or mail it inside at the Post Office, or a secure receptacle at your place of business.
- Never send cash or coins in the mail. Use checks or money orders. Ask your bank for “secure” checks that are more difficult to alter.
- If you see any suspicious substance, such as glue or other sticky product on a mailbox or mail receptacle, please contact your local post office to report it, and notify Postal Inspectors.
Other tips I came across on the USPS site:
- Minimize the number of checks you write. Your best option is to pay bills on line using a secure computer. This minimizes the possibility of your checks being stolen through the mailing process.
- When writing out checks, use a gel ink pen (preferably black) so the ink will permeate the fibers of the check. There are brands that advertise that they are non-erasable.
- Never leave blank spaces on the payee or amount lines. Write large and use XXs to fill in space.
- Shred cleared checks returned along with your bank statements.
- Review your bank statements immediately. You have a limited time frame in which to report fraudulent transactions. When fraud is detected, it is necessary to report it within 30 days (UCC Code 4-406).
- If possible, have your new checks delivered to your bank.
Suspects caught on Grove St.
The Wellesley Police on October 18 arrested three men suspected of illegally removing mail from the Grove St. mailboxes. On that date at 1:45 a.m. officers were responding to a call in the area of Wellesley Square when an officer drove by a vehicle parked on Crest Road. The New York registration on the Acura sedan was recognized by the Automatic License Plate Reader in the police cruiser as a vehicle that was possibly connected to the theft of mail from a mail box in early September.
Officer Wagner observed the vehicle make a left hand turn from Crest Road onto Central Street and then continue onto Washington Street. As the vehicle was traveling east on Washington Street an ambulance was driving west and the Acura failed to move over for the ambulance. Officer Wagner stopped the vehicle and spoke with the operator and passenger. While speaking with them Officer Wagner noticed there were items in the vehicle that are used to illegally remove mail from U.S. mail boxes. He also noticed there were a large number of credit or gift cards and cash in a console between the rear seats.
The two men were taken into custody for Possession of Burglarious Instruments. A short time later Officer Dennehy was approached by a male party who stated his friends had left him, he was from New York and his friends were in an Acura sedan. Officers spoke with that man, who admitted they had come to the area to attempt to illegally remove mail from the mailboxes at the Grove Street Post Office. He was taken into custody, transported to the station, booked in the usual manner and afforded all rights.The first two were held on $1,000 bail; the third was held on $500 bail. All three were transported to Dedham District Court.
The U.S. Postal Inspector was contacted and is assisting with this ongoing investigation.