It’s a sudden uptick in an old crime affecting both residents and businesses across Chicago that has seen hundreds of thousands of dollars stolen, all with checks in the mail.
Banks reported more check fraud-related crimes in the past year than in the previous two years before that, and thieves feel so emboldened by taking on these crimes that they’ve taken to 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 online crime technology firm called Q6 Cyber, and they provide 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 United States Postal Service mailbox master key. The price tag is listed at $1,000. The user states that they are willing to ship it or deliver it if the buyer is in Chicago.
Other videos demonstrate the actions of “walkers,” a slang term used for people hired by thieves to enter certain banks and cash or deposit stolen checks under false names. In return for cashing the stolen checks, hikers are paid a cut or part of the money.
In a video shared with NBC 5, an elderly gentleman sits in the back seat of a car and counts a stack of hundred dollar bills with an actual walker next to him, while another man behind the camera asks him how he plans to “use that bread .”
“It’s yours, what are you going to do with it?” says the photographer.
The walker replies: “I’m going to buy a car.”
The photographer laughs and replies: “You can’t even walk, you’re going to buy a car? No, I’m out.”
Even more alarming: In all the posts and videos purporting to show examples of these crimes, Q6 Cyber says the thieves appear to be targeting the vulnerable elderly, people with disabilities and those who are not at home to carry out these crimes .
“You see this emphasis on the elderly and the disabled. They are both recruited and encouraged in 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 the platform.
Recently, the company told CNBC that it “proactively moderates these channels, removing posts and banning users who violate the terms of service.”
Check fraud victims who are seeing big losses said they feel more needs to be done to protect consumers.
Dan Rudman reached out to NBC 5 after he said his Chicago cashing business, Taz Holdings, has lost about $100,000 in stolen checks just since October.
Rudman said postal checks from his clients often don’t make it to his office. Instead, they are caught by thieves.
“You’re talking about a $5,000 check, a $2,000 check,” Rudman explained, standing in front of a pile of duplicate checks he recently stole. “This is a very sophisticated operation. You can’t send a check to anybody anymore.”
Rudman is just one of thousands of reported check fraud cases in Cook County in the past year, according to figures from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.
Cook County banks filed more check fraud-related “suspicious activities” for 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 slight decrease of 9,519 messages.
But by 2022, more than 20,000 cases of check-related fraud were reported to federal regulators.
Nationwide, reports of check fraud increased by 84% from 2021 to 2022, but in Cook County alone, cases increased by more than 112%.
The increase in check fraud crimes even prompted a nationwide alert issued by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network on February 27, warning financial institutions that “Criminals have increasingly targeted US Mail and United States Postal Service mail carriers since the COVID-19 pandemic to commit check fraud.”
This increase is likely driven by underground networks of thieves, such as those posting on Telegram, experts say.
“Check fraud is not a new concept,” said Mara Gibor, Q6 Cyber’s VP of Intelligence Operations. “But we saw an increase in the last year of compromised checks being advertised for sale in various underground communities.”
Q6 Cyber explains the prevalence of ads for “walkers” on certain Telegram message channels reveals a level of sophistication behind these criminal operations.
“‘Walkers’ appear to be wing mules, who are hired for their services, meaning they will take the either stolen, washed or forged check into the bank and deposit it, pretending to be the account holder ,” Noriega explained.
Noriega said the thieves are looking for hikers whose physical appearance matches the specific characteristics listed for holders of bank accounts where these stolen checks will eventually be deposited.
“These [stolen] checks are deposited into a supposed mule account,” Noriega explained. “This mule account has been created in the past with likely synthetic or stolen information. So they have to match the demographic that that account was set up with.”
Features like the account holder’s age, race, even hair color.
“It definitely requires a level of sophistication,” Noriega said.
The US Postal Service and the Postal Inspection Service would not tell NBC 5 specifically what they are doing to try to combat these rising levels of mail fraud, citing their inability to comment on “investigative tactics, techniques and procedures.”
But both agencies said they are working with law enforcement, even developing new technology for their classic blue mailboxes that could “devalue or eliminate [the need for] physical keys.”
Rudman says he has shared with authorities all 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 breaks the trust of his valued customers.
“We all have to come together and solve this,” Rudman said. “It affects all of us, affects confidence in the system.”
Protect yourself from check fraud crimes
The US Postal Inspection Service tells NBC 5 there are many ways consumers can protect themselves.
- Avoid writing checks in blue or black ink. Use a gel pen instead. Gel pen ink cannot be washed away.
- Walk your mail into a USPS office and avoid dropping into a blue collection box. If you rely on the collection box, submit your email before the latest daily collection time listed on the box.
- Don’t let incoming or outgoing mail sit and accumulate in your mailbox. Remove your mail from your mailbox immediately, especially if you expect checks or credit cards.
- Monitor your financial accounts and credit profiles for fraudulent activity. The USPS emphasizes that early detection is important.
- If you are the victim of mail theft, file a report with local police and the Postal Inspection Service by calling 877-876-2455.