Commentary, Guest Commentary

A Penny For Your Thoughts

The call came from a longtime business owner in Mason District, reporting the theft of several checks from the U.S. mail.  The amounts were not insignificant, and he wanted to alert me to the problem.  I told him that, indeed, I was aware of the problem, as I had experienced a similar situation a couple of years ago when checks in our outgoing mail apparently were stolen, altered, and cashed.  

In the first case, our bank called to ask if I had written a large check to someone, whom I had never heard of previously.  The thief had used our checking account number to create a new check and presented it to the bank.  The fake check was signed with my name, but it was not my signature.  Fortunately, the bank took action to block the release of any funds.  A few days later, another check was presented for payment; this time the check looked exactly like our real check, and my signature appeared to have been traced from the original.  The bank paid that check to the fraudster, and later refunded the amount to our account.  While we didn’t lose money in either instance, we did have to close the account, open a new one, and then notify all direct depositors, etc.  That was a lengthy aggravation to avoid!   

I reported the theft attempts to Fairfax County’s financial crimes division and, later, a man was arrested in Prince George’s County with some checks, including mine, in his possession.  I agreed to testify, but such financial crimes are rampant, and courts are backlogged, so that case may never get adjudicated.  The advice of bank officials and police detectives is to be aware of where you deposit your mail.  The police discourage putting checks into your own mailbox, referring to them as the “come and steal me” flag.  They recommend using the post office for mailing bills, going inside to deposit mail, if possible.  Safer still is using on-line bill pay but, for many older residents, writing a check is the method they’ve been using for years.  

In 2017, Fairfax County launched the Silver Shield Campaign to help senior citizens, especially, recognize and avoid the many scams that are prevalent now.  Every day seems to bring a new approach to relieve unsuspecting people of their assets, and Silver Shield (www.fairfaxcounty.gov/familyservices/older-adults/fairfax-county-silver-shield-anti-scam-campaign) is designed to provide helpful hints to avoid being taken.  Common scams include the “hello, Grandma?” phone scam – a constituent lost more than $28,000 responding to that one; romance scams, tax scams, even coronavirus vaccination card scams.  Silver Shield also has information about handling door-to-door solicitors (a police officer once told a group that, if you’re not willing to kiss the person on the other side of the door, don’t open it!) and home repair and tree work contractors.  All door-to-door solicitors probably are strangers to you; some are scammers so if you decide to open the door, take your time, check references, seek second opinions, and get everything in writing before you write that check or provide your credit card.   

The holiday season is approaching, so extra diligence is needed to avoid scammers.  The businessman who called me did all the right things – notified the police and the U.S. postal inspectors, as well as his financial institutions and customers – but the loss of trust in a decades-old agency is difficult to gauge and accept.  I was glad he warned me, so I could warn FCN-P readers.  Don’t be a victim!