Check Washers Launder Money the Easy Way

By Martin T. Biegelman, CFE, Fellow of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners

Methamphetamine addicts steal personal and business checks from the mail, give them a bath, and cash the revived drafts to feed their habits.  

Joe and Samantha Etinger were driving on an Arizona highway when police pulled them over for a routine traffic stop.1 During a search of their car, the officers found five personal checks that the occupants had stolen from the mail in various Arizona cities. Joe and Sam had "washed" away the payees and signatures on the checks with chemicals and had planned to fill in their own information and cash them.  

Postal inspectors, who had obtained a search warrant, found six additional stolen checks in the suspects' motel room and one more soaking in a washing solution. Both husband and wife admitted to needing the money to support their methamphetamine habits.  

Checks are taking a bath and so are unsuspecting citizens. Check washing, a method of altering checks to steal from personal and business accounts, has been in existence since the mid-1980s, but the crude scheme is increasing. According to the National Check Fraud Center (, check washing costs consumers and financial institutions $815 million a year.  

Check counterfeiting is becoming a common fraudster's scheme. Fraudsters use computers, scanners, off-the-shelf software, and laser and color printers to create high-quality phony checks that are hard to detect.  

But unsophisticated check washing - a low-tech form of identity theft - is still the preferred choice of culprits who lack computer skills or for those who need quick cash. Methamphetamine addicts, who constantly crave the rush, will create the drug in makeshift laboratories and then use some of the leftover chemicals to wash stolen checks. 

According to an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter, without meth and the addictions it can cause there would be virtually no mail-theft problems.2
"Almost without exception, the people we're arresting for these types of crimes are doing meth," says Tom Montgomery of the Seattle office of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, as quoted in the Seattle newspaper. "It's a plague."





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