Life lesson

Beware of check fraud — a problem not exclusive to big cities

BRATTLEBORO — Don't fall victim to check fraud, an industry that hijacks $190 billion each year, according to Forbes.com. Here's a true story of what can happen.

While I was visiting my mother recently in Albuquerque, N.M., Mom's landline rang early one morning.

The voice on the line introduced himself as Michael from the Albuquerque Journal.

In response to my “Hello,” he proceeded to ask when the newspaper could expect a payment for my mother's overdue Journal subscription.

At 92, Mom continues to manage her affairs quite competently, so I had no reason to believe she had neglected to pay her bill. She confirmed that her payment had been sent mid-December.

I assured him that if Mom's check had not been received I would get a replacement into the mail that day. He then suggested I give him a credit card number to avoid further delay.

I explained that my mother did not conduct business in that manner and that I would send a check right away.

Michael continued to press me for a credit card, to which I again replied “no.” He eventually agreed, and the call was concluded.

I then dialed a number for the Albuquerque Journal listed on Mom's invoice and spoke with a customer service representative who confirmed the delinquent account.

As a long shot, I asked if she knew of “Michael”; she did not.

That, in and of itself, was not a warning flag one way or the other. Neither was a call placed shortly thereafter to the number Michael had originally called from that morning.

* * *

My next obvious step was to call my mother's bank. Once I was cleared to speak on her behalf, I asked the young man if he would review her checking account activity, upon which we could discuss my concerns.

I asked him to verify the check number that had been written to the Journal on Dec. 17. He scrolled through his information and discovered that this check had been paid - not to the Journal but to a “John Smith” for an amount of $750.

In disbelief, after asking him to double-check this information, I then asked him to look at the next check number in sequence, because as it were my mother had written two checks that day, the second of which was paid to her local water department.

Sure enough, that next check was also made payable to “John Smith,” in the amount of $700.

As I processed my thoughts, I asked Mom if she had put her outgoing checks into her curbside mailbox on the morning of Dec. 17. She had.

This brought the unfortunate conclusion that some culprit had stolen her checks.

One might conclude from my earlier conversation with Michael that he perhaps was in cahoots with this ring of thieves; however, I was greatly relieved when the Albuquerque Journal confirmed that, in fact, Michael was an authorized representative.

And a good outcome emerged for my mother.

Despite the inconvenience of having to cancel accounts and open new ones, her money was safely reimbursed into her account the following day.

Nothing was lost, yet we gained a life lesson.

* * *

Now back home in Brattleboro since this incident, I have done a bit of research to offer a few easy, yet important, safety measures to help prevent check fraud here, for in our small town, “big city” problems exist, too.

• When writing checks, use a pen with indelible ink that will safeguard against “check washing” in the event your check is stolen.

• Don't leave outgoing mail in your mailbox. That little red flag is an invitation to thieves. Take outgoing mail to your post office or other mailing outlet.

• Don't put mail in street mailboxes: the highest rate of mail theft locally is from those big, blue postal service mailboxes on street corners and at other public places.

• Send valuables via registered mail. Registered mail is kept under lock and key and is signed for every time it changes processing centers.

A great deal of information on this subject can be easily accessed at www.ckfraud.org/ckfraud.html.

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