Before the Internet and options like online banking and bill pay—I know, it’s hard to remember that far back, isn’t it?—would-be identity thieves had to work a little harder to gain access to your financial information. Back then, one of the worst forms of identity theft was check fraud, and ironically, it was one of the hardest types of fraud to prove.
There were a variety of ways that thieves gained use of your checking account. Check theft and check washing involved actually using your genuine checks, either by stealing a wallet that held blank checks or by literally washing the ink from a check you had written and repurposing it for their own use. Of course, there were less direct ways that thieves got a hold of your bank account, such as adding themselves to your account without your knowledge or using blank check stock (often stolen from the printing company) to make themselves duplicate checks on your account.
Consumers had to be very proactive about safeguarding their accounts and keeping tabs on their bank statements. Of course, in the event of identity theft, getting official help to resolve the situation was a little harder than it is now, mostly due to the lower incidences and lack of information about identity theft.
But the last thing we should do is assume that check fraud has gone by the wayside. In fact, it’s easier than ever to steal someone’s checking account information. Now that so many consumers rely on plastic cards, mobile apps, and online banking to do their bill paying for them, those dinosaur-era paper checks might easily go unnoticed if they’ve been stolen.
The first thing you can do to prevent this type of theft is to keep a good watch on your bank account. If you’ve signed up for paperless statements, don’t just ignore those emails from your bank. Take the time to open them and look through your bank statement for any unauthorized activity. Also note if there are new ATM cards for joint users on the account, especially if they’re in your name but with a different address.
You also need to keep your paper checks secure, and protect your checking account number and your routing number. Computerized check blanks for print-at-home checks are available in any office supply store, and with your information, a thief can easily wipe out your account from his home computer.
If you do find suspicious activity on your accounts or your wallet and checkbook have been stolen, notify your bank immediately to put a stop on those checks and hold your account until they can investigate the problem. Request a refund of those funds that were stolen from you, and ask them to flag those checks so that law enforcement will be contacted if they’re used. You will not only need a police report of the crime, but you’ll need a letter from your bank stating that your account was closed specifically due to theft; this helps prevent any possible confusion down the road if you’re accused of passing bad checks.
It can seem like a tedious amount of work, but it’s a good idea to request a letter from each vendor where a fraudulent charge was made stating that they acknowledge you are not responsible for these charges. Save these letters in a safe place in case the issue is sent to collections. Remember, their computer systems only know that they haven’t been paid and that your name and address are on the account. Having these letters will give you the proof you need should the issue come up later.
Finally, once you work your way through the process of closing this account and opening a new one, the last thing you’re going to want to do is go through it again. Make sure your passwords on your new accounts are strong, and keep your paper checks and personal information secure to cut down on the chances of this happening again.
Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can use our services, and anyone can help us help others. If you found this information useful, please consider donating to the Identity Theft Resource Center to help us keep our services free to the public.