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Check washing scam hits Lancaster County

LANCASTER—Lancaster County businesses and government agencies have recently fallen victim to a nationwide check washing scheme that has resulted in the loss of more than $100,000, according to Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office Detective Brian O’Bier.

The sheriff’s office has investigated multiple reports of check washing over the last few weeks, said Sheriff Patrick McCranie. All those affected have been businesses or government agencies, including the sheriff’s office. “But we’re urging everyone, including individuals, to be vigilant and check their bank accounts more frequently,” he said.

Using a process known as check washing, scammers steal checks once they have been mailed at the post office then erase the payee’s name using a process that can be made from household cleaning products. The payee’s name is then rewritten and the check is used or cashed. Many times the new ‘payee’ is in the name of someone whose identity or personal information also has been stolen, so the real criminal is hard to track down, said O’Bier.

According to O’Bier, none of the stolen checks have been cashed in Virginia. Some have been cashed as far away as California and Florida. He also said law enforcement in the neighboring counties of Northumberland, Richmond and Middlesex have not fielded any reports.

“All the businesses or agencies so far have been in Lancaster,” said Sheriff McCranie. Most of the reports are related to checks written or mailed in late August or early September. However, Whitney Lang with Randall Kipp Architecture Inc. in Irvington said, “I discovered the scam on July 14 when I looked to see who a check was written to in our online banking register. I noticed that the payee was an individual, a name I didn’t recognize, but the check number and dollar amount were consistent with our books. This makes it hard to identify as fake unless you take the time to expand the debit to see the actual check. I caught it the very next day but if I hadn’t coincidentally examined our account closely, I wouldn’t have discovered this scam until probably weeks later when our vendors were asking for money.

“The team at Chesapeake Bank quickly helped me resolve the issue and the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office immediately responded to my request to file a report,” she added. “I strongly urge businesses to use secure online bill pay whenever possible and talk to their bank about additional ways to protect their business from these types of fraudulent attacks.”

According to O’Bier, the quicker the scam is caught the better for the business, within 24-48 hours is ideal.

“This is a very complex and organized scam,” said Sheriff McCranie.

Mail theft is a federal crime and the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office has solicited assistance from the postal inspector. Anyone who has any information about this crime or who may have been a victim should call the office as soon as possible, 462-5111.

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