NBC 5 Responds

‘A Very Sophisticated Operation': Check Fraud Soars in Cook County, Thieves Brag Online

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network recently issued an alert to banks, warning of a sudden surge in check fraud-related crimes.

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There is a sudden surge of an old crime impacting residents and businesses alike across Chicago that have seen hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen, all involving checks in the mail. 

Banks reported more check fraud-related crimes in the last year than the previous two years before that, and thieves feel so emboldened pulling off these crimes that they have taken to the messaging app Telegram to post, brag, advertise and solicit new accomplices, based on videos and posts reviewed by NBC 5 Responds.

The posts and videos were discovered by an electronic crimes technology firm called Q6 Cyber, and they offer a rare glimpse into an open market of crimes taking place, fueled by check- and mail-related fraud.

In one post, a user is selling what appears to be an authentic master key for United States Postal Service mailboxes. The price tag is listed at $1,000. The user states they are willing to ship it or deliver it if the buyer is in Chicago.

Post on Telegram, shared with NBC 5 Responds.

Other videos demonstrate the actions of “walkers,” a slang term used for the people hired by thieves to walk into certain banks and cash or deposit stolen checks under fake names. In return for cashing the stolen checks, walkers are paid a cut or portion of the money.

In one video shared with NBC 5, an older gentleman sits in the back seat of a car, counting a stack of one-hundred dollar bills with an actual walker next to him, while another man behind the camera asks him how he plans to “spend that bread.”

“That’s yours, what are you going to do with it?” the photographer says.

The walker replies, “I’m going to buy me a car.”

The photographer laughs and replies, “You can’t even walk, you’re going to buy a car? Nah, I’m out.”

In a video posted on Telegram, a 'walker' counts out one-hundred dollar bills after apparently cashing a stolen check.

Even more alarming: In all of the posts and videos purporting to show examples of these crimes, Q6 Cyber says thieves appear to be targeting vulnerable seniors, people with disabilities and the unhoused to carry out these crimes. 

“You do see this emphasis on the elderly and the disabled. They are both recruited and solicited on these underground channels” said Maria Noriega, a senior cyber threat intelligence analyst for Q6 Cyber.

Telegram did not respond to NBC 5’s questions or requests for comment about the check fraud posts in channels on its platform.

Recently, the company told CNBC that it “proactively moderates these channels, removes posts, and bans users who violate its terms of service.”

Check fraud victims seeing major losses said they feel that more needs to be done to protect consumers.

Dan Rudman contacted NBC 5 after he said his suburban Chicago recycling business, Taz Holdings, has lost around $100,000 from stolen checks, just since this past October.

Rudman said mailed checks from his clients are often not making it to his offices. Instead, they’re intercepted by thieves.

“You’re talking a $5,000 check, $2,000 check,” Rudman explained, standing in front of a pile of copies of checks thieves recently stole. “This is a very sophisticated operation. You can't mail a check to anyone anymore.”

Rudman is just one of thousands of cases of reported check fraud in Cook County in the last year, according to figures from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. 

Cook County banks filed more check fraud-related “Suspicious Activity Reports” of these crimes last year than the previous two years combined.

In 2020, more than 9,900 “Suspicious Activity Reports” were filed by banks for check-related fraud. In 2021, there was a small decline of 9,519 reports.

But in 2022, more than 20,000 cases of check-related fraud were reported to federal regulators.

Nationwide, check fraud reports grew by 84% from 2021 to 2022, but in Cook County alone, cases grew more than 112%.

The surge in check-fraud crimes even led to a nationwide alert issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network on Feb. 27, warning financial institutions that “Criminals have been increasingly targeting the U.S. Mail and United States Postal Service mail carriers since the COVID-19 pandemic to commit check fraud.”

That surge is likely fueled by underground networks of thieves, like those posting on Telegram, experts say.

“Check fraud is not a new concept,” said Mara Gibor, Q6 Cyber’s VP of Intelligence Operations. “However, we did see an uptick over the past year of compromised checks being advertised for sale in various underground communities.”

Q6 Cyber explains the prevalence of advertisements for “walkers” on certain Telegram messaging channels reveal a level of sophistication behind these criminal operations.

“‘Walkers’ appear to be wing mules, who are hired for their services, meaning they are going to take that either stolen, washed or counterfeit check into the bank, and deposit it, posing as the account holder,” Noriega explained.

Noriega said thieves look for walkers whose physical appearances match the specific characteristics listed for the holders of bank accounts where these stolen checks will ultimately be deposited.

“These [stolen] checks are being deposited into an assumed mule account,” Noriega explained. “That mule account has been created previously with likely synthetic or stolen information. So they have to match the demographics that that account was set up with.”

Features like the account holder’s age, race, even hair color.

Screenshots of Telegram posts, describing 'walkers' and the needs of check fraud thieves. Posts shared with NBC 5 from Q6 Cyber.

“It definitely does require a level of sophistication,” Noriega said.

The U.S. Postal Service and the Postal Inspection Police would not tell NBC 5 specifically what they are doing to try and combat these surging levels of mail fraud, citing its inability to comment on “investigative tactics, techniques, and procedures.”

But both agencies did say they are working with law enforcement, and are even developing new technology for its classic blue mailboxes that may “devalue or eliminate [the need for] physical keys.”

Rudman says he’s shared with authorities all of the names of the thieves who deposited his washed checks and their account information. He says a criminal investigation is underway.

Still, Rudman says the situation is breaking trust with his valued customers.

“We all need to get together and solve this,” Rudman said. “It affects us all, affects the trust of the system.”

Protect Yourself From Check-Fraud Crimes

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service tells NBC 5 there are many ways consumers can protect themselves.

  1. Avoid writing checks with blue or black ink. Instead, use a gel pen. Gel pen ink cannot be washed away.
  2. Walk your mail into a USPS office, and avoid dropping into a blue collection box. If you rely on the collection box, drop your mail in prior to the last daily pickup time listed on the box.
  3. Don’t let incoming or outgoing mail sit and accumulate in your mailbox. Promptly remove your mail from your mailbox, especially if you’re expecting checks or credit cards.
  4. Monitor your financial accounts and credit profiles for fraudulent activity. The USPS stresses that early detection is important.
  5. If you do fall victim to mail theft, file a report with local police and the postal inspection service by calling 877-876-2455.

Have a consumer complaint? Call 1-844-NBC-RESP or click here to let us know, so we can help.

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