The Suffolk County Police Department on Tuesday at Yaphank headquarters provided some details on a case in which unknown people steal checks out of residents' personal mailboxes and change the names and amounts on the checks. Credit: Dawn McCormick

Suffolk County’s police commissioner and chief of detectives said Tuesday that authorities had identified 40 cases of “check washing” fraud in Dix Hills, Melville and Huntington. 

The cases date to August and involve a blend of high- and low-tech criminal activity: perpetrators steal paper checks from mailboxes and use a chemical to erase the amount-payable and payee fields. Then they write in new information and fraudulently cash the checks, either in a bank or using a mobile banking app. 

“They are taking advantage of the accessibility of mail and have stolen thousands,” Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison said at a news conference at police headquarters in Yaphank. 

In one Dix Hills case in August, Chief of Detectives John Roman said, a scammer changed a $100 check to $52,000, then cashed it at an unknown Bank of America location. Roman said authorities were seeking subpoenas to investigate that and other cases and that Bank of America would reimburse the victim. 

Police have not made arrests in the Dix Hills case, Roman said. The checks were made out to “various names,” but police do not yet know if they are dealing with a ring of fraudsters, he said.

American Banking Association spokeswoman Sarah Grano said in an email that “We’ve recently seen criminals gravitate back toward check fraud, but fortunately banks are well equipped to catch it thanks to sophisticated fraud prevention systems and constant vigilance by dedicated employees. It’s important to remember that bank customers are generally protected against losses due to unauthorized transactions if they are reported in a timely fashion."

Many of the cases involved personal checks left in mailboxes outside homes, but some involved checks in United States Postal Service mailboxes or at USPS facilities.

John Del Giudice, assistant inspector in charge for the New York Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said in an email that “postal Inspectors are currently investigating reports of mail theft from home mailboxes containing outgoing mail. … We are working in partnership with the Suffolk County Police Department.” 

Postal inspectors recover more than $1 billion annually in counterfeit checks and money orders, according to the agency website. 

Harrison and Roman said residents should avoid dropping checks in home mailboxes and should switch to online banking from a secure computer or mail checks from a post office. Residents should write checks in indelible gel ink and pick up new orders of checks from the bank, instead of having them shipped.

They should check their bank activity regularly, retrieve mail regularly and sign up for USPS Informed Delivery, a free service with daily emails previewing mail and packages scheduled for delivery, authorities said.

Mail theft is a federal crime punishable by up to 5 years in prison, post office officials said.

With Dawn McCormick

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