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An old-fashioned crime is on the rise: bank check theft

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

In the age of cybercrime, the idea of forging checks seems almost quaint. You remember checks. They're those pieces of paper the bank gives you that you used to pay your bills. But in the age of online bill pay, Venmo and other cash apps, paper checks just aren't used as widely as they once were. I mean, I maybe write two a month, maybe. So it might surprise you to learn that there's been a surge in stolen checks.

That's the finding of David Maimon and his students. He's an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology and directs Georgia State University's Cybersecurity Research Group. Hello, and welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID MAIMON: Thank you so much for having me.

KEITH: So glad to have you on. Walk me through this. How are criminals getting their hands on these checks or even finding them?

MAIMON: Well, it's fairly easy. Some of them simply go to your home mailbox and take the mail you left for the post office to pick up. Others simply go to the blue boxes with keys that they were able to steal from some of the mailmans (ph) out there, empty the boxes and get the checks that some of us send to our utility companies or, you know, our loved one when we want to send a gift. That's how easy it is to get those checks.

KEITH: And then how do they repurpose them, or what do they do with them?

MAIMON: So once the envelope is in the offender's hand, they open the envelope, they take the check, they take a screenshot just in case, and then they use nail polish remover to remove the payee as well as the amount that the victim essentially wrote on a check. Once they have that, they take another picture.

And then they upload the picture with the clean check on several darknet as well as encrypted communication platforms that facilitate the online fraud - underground markets. Then any customer who is interested in the check simply bid for it. And two days after, you get a clean check over usually UPS that you can start working with.

KEITH: Do you have any idea why this is surging now?

MAIMON: I have some hypotheses. I have to say that after we started talking about what we are seeing on several platforms, we got contacted by a few folks who work with the USPS inspectors who told us that USPS withdrew funding to the inspectors. So it happens to be that there are no inspectors roaming the streets right now and protecting the mail. That's what it looks like. And that kind of coincide to the increase we started to see in stolen check sales over the darknet platforms that we oversee.

KEITH: And have you checked with the Postal Service to see what they have to say about it?

MAIMON: We haven't talked to the USPS or the postal office yet. I mean, we keep tagging them all over our posts when we find new videos and new checks, but we haven't gotten any response from them so far.

KEITH: So what can people do to protect themselves from this kind of crime if they still use checks?

MAIMON: Well, I think that the best thing to do - and I do that in the context of my household - is when I need to send a check, I simply go to the post office. I get inside the post office, and I simply put the mail in the box office that the Post Office essentially has in its facility.

KEITH: That's David Maimon. He's director of the Georgia State University Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MAIMON: Thank you so much for having me, Tamara.

KEITH: We reached out to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for comment. And in a statement, they say, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service takes seriously its role to safeguard America and will continue to aggressively pursue perpetrators that use the U.S. mail system to further their illegal activity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.