The Postal Inspection Service is under pressure to improve mail security as fraud-detection experts warn of the spread of "check washing" and "mailbox fishing," in which perpetrators steal checks from mailboxes and use nail polish remover to erase dollar figures and payee names to fill in new amounts and payees, Axios reports. The U.S. Postal Service has been putting warning signs on blue mailboxes, telling people to use online bill pay or bring their letters to a post office, a guard against theft by fishing envelopes out of the boxes or, more commonly lately, stealing and selling the keys mail carriers use to open multiple boxes. Banks have staffed up in check processing, but point the finger at the United States Postal Service's law enforcement arm for staffing cuts that the banks blame for some of the problem.
The problem has been most acute in California, New York, New Jersey and Florida, but is spreading across the country. Thieves sometimes sell mailbox keys and checks on the black market. "We see [buyers] offering $1,000 to $7,000 a key, depending on the amount of mailboxes in the ZIP code," says David Maimon, a cybercrime expert at Georgia State University who has been following the surge in crime. Personal checks "now go for up to $250" apiece — up from $125 to $175 earlier this year, Maimon said. Washed business checks now sell for as much as $650, up from $250. "It's gone berserk," says Frank McKenna, a fraud consultant to the banking industry, who traces the phenomenon to the pandemic-era boom in stolen stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. The most illicit activity takes place on Telegram, he said — though how-to videos on check-washing can also be found online.