DERWOOD, Md. (WJLA) - Police call it a safe kind of theft, but it's sure hurting bank accounts across the Metro area. Thieves are pulling open residential mailboxes in search for personal checks, and then cashing them at your expense.
Donn Andre, 75, of Derwood, is the latest victim to the growing form of thievery. Andre, a retired Defense Department employee, estimates he places 15 checks a month in his tan plastic mailbox. However, a Dec. 27 check to Pepco landed in the wrong hands.
"I didn't know about it until the police showed-up," Andre remarked while sitting at his dinning room table. "I thought it was just lost mail."
According to charging documents filed in Montgomery County District Court, Corinna Winston, 19, of Gaithersburg, stole Andre's check right out of his mailbox. Detectives believe she used a common chemical solution, like acetone or bleach, to erase parts of Andre's check – first switching the payee from “Pepco” to her own name, and then turning the original $82.67 payment into $1800. Because the alleged crime was committed with Andre’s personal signature still intact, the bank gave Winston cash on the spot.
"It's a surprise that someone so young could be that savvy," Andre remarked. "She just reached in and grabbed, that's thievery."
About one week later, Winston attempted to cash another check, worth $3000, at a Bank of America branch along the 15900 block of Shady Grove Road in Gaithersburg. A teller noticed the check looked fraudulent, and notified her branch manager who called police. Officers soon linked the 19-year-old with two other fraud cases, including Donn Andre's missing Pepco payment.
"It's a problem for law enforcement all over," Montgomery County Police Department spokesman Capt. Paul Starks remarked. "There's a much lower risk of getting caught by mail theft."
Investigators say thieves often cruise through middle and upper-class neighborhoods, searching for mailboxes with the red flag upright. Pay ro
"It's almost impossible to enforce because the criminals can blend in with their surroundings," Capt. Starks added.
Police recommend residents pay their bills online to avoid mailbox thefts. If that's not an option, checks can be securely mailed from at U.S. Post Office branches, or neighborhood public mailboxes.
At 75-years-old, Andre isn't planning on diving-into online bill pay, but he has taken new precautions, refusing to place checks in his mailbox.
"It's going to be beneficial for others to know they have to be careful with outgoing checks, or any kind of business mail, because it could just disappear," Andre concluded.
Winston is facing one count of Theft: $10,000 - $100,000, and a second count of Attempted Theft: $10,000 - $100,000. If convicted, she could face 30 years in Maryland state prison.
Additional check fraud preventative tips, courtesy of Chase Bank:
*Use high-quality, blank check stock with built-in security features, which may include fluorescent fibers, watermark, chemical resistance, bleach-reactive brown stain, photocopy void pantograph, endorsement backer, thermo-chromic ink, micro-printing, warning band border, laid lines or non-negotiable marks.
*Avoid blue ballpoint pens, which are easy to erase, and instead use black gel pens – its ink locks into paper fibers, making it near impossible to wash-out.
*Securely store check stock, deposit slips, bank statements and canceled checks.
*Implement secure processes for financial document destruction.