Check-washing can put your hard-earned money into the hands of criminals; how to protect yourself

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- It's a small act that could end up costing you big time! U.S. postal inspectors are warning of an elaborate check-washing scam.

Here's how it works:

"I wrote a check to my copy service for my law office," Julie DiMaggio said.

DiMaggio quickly realized something was wrong when she checked her bank statement.

"The check cashed for  $2,100 and I had actually written it for $125," DiMaggio said.

When she called the copy center to complain, she realized the company was also a victim.

"They told me that they had  their mailbox broken into. Because it was outside and over a holiday weekend, it went unchecked for several days and when they came in someone had taken all of their mail," DiMaggio said.

As it turned out, DiMaggio was not alone. Thieves had stolen the mail of several businesses.

"They had washed my check and put in their own information," DiMaggio said.

Check-washing is the process of erasing details from checks to allow them to be rewritten.

"The criminals took these checks and they erased the payee on the check. Sometimes they erased the amounts on the checks as well," U.S. Postal Inspector Blanca Alvarez said.

Postal inspectors say the criminals then go to a bank and cash the check.

"The checks were cashed because they looked legitimate. They were real checks. They were just altered and the criminals were able to take the money from the checks that they cashed," Alvarez said.

Postal inspectors say there are simple steps businesses and consumers can take to keep their mail safe.

"I contacted the businesses that were experiencing mail theft and advised them to pickup their mail immediately after it was delivered.  Most importantly, not to leave the mail overnight or over the weekend in the mailboxes," Alvarez said.

Several people were arrested in connection with this case. Postal inspectors want to emphasize how important it is for consumers to check their statements and check business logs each month as well.