Check fraud is back in a big way, fueled by a rise in organized crime that is forcing small businesses and individuals to take more safety measures or to avoid sending checks through the mail altogether, The Associated Press reports. Banks issued 680,000 reports of check fraud to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), last year. That’s up from 350,000 reports in 2021. Meanwhile the U.S. Postal Inspection Service reported roughly 300,000 complaints of mail theft in 2021, more than double the prior year’s total. Early in the pandemic, government relief checks became an attractive target for criminals. The problem has only gotten worse and postal authorities and bank officials are warning people to avoid mailing checks if possible, or at least to use a secure mail drop such as inside the post office. Meanwhile, as the cases of fraud increase, victims are waiting longer to recover their stolen money.
Check usage has been in decline for decades as consumers have largely switched to paying for services with credit and debit cards. Americans wrote roughly 3.4 billion checks in 2022, down from nearly 19 billion checks in 1990, according to the Federal Reserve. However, the average size of the checks people write rose from $673 in 1990 — or $1,602 in today’s dollars — to $2,652 last year. “Despite the declining use of checks in the United States, criminals have been increasingly targeting the U.S. Mail since the COVID-19 pandemic to commit check fraud,” FinCEN says. Checks are still frequently used by small businesses. Eric Fischgrund, who runs FischTank PR, a public relations firm in New York, had 15 checks that were being mailed to him by clients stolen after they all went through the same Postal Service distribution center. Ten of them were successfully cashed by criminals. The checks were stolen in March. Fischgrund became aware of the problem in April, when several of his clients who were never late missed payments. The Postal Service investigated and Fischgrund has recovered about 70% of the revenue.