What is Check Washing?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2016
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Check washing is a somewhat unsophisticated but often effective form of fraud in which a legitimate check's information is erased chemically or electronically, allowing a criminal to rewrite the amount of the check and the name of the payee. While there may be some defenses, such as electronic inks and hidden watermarks, to guard against such fraud, the technique works because many recipients accept the check at face value due to the legitimacy of the signature. Because rudimentary methods can easily damage a paper check, however, many con artists ruin more checks than they can cash.

The washing process is not especially difficult, although the results can vary widely. In a typical operation, a legitimate check is prepared by placing a protective seal over the signature line. This could be a low adhesive tape or sticker. The check is then held with tongs and placed in a pan that usually contains acetone (nail polish remover), paint thinner, or bleach. The chemical dissolves many types of ink found in standard ballpoint pens. Once the ink from the check has dissolved completely, the check is hung up to air dry. The result, ideally, is a signed blank check, which the con artist can rewrite to suit his or her needs.


One popular method of obtaining legitimate checks for check washing is to drive through neighborhoods and secretly inspect outgoing mail left in curbside mailboxes. Payroll checks and bill payments are especially popular targets. Sophisticated con artists have been known to carry portable computers, laminating machines, scanners, and high-end printers in their vehicles that allow them to create false identifications in order to cash batches of washed checks.

The main problem with this type of fraud is creating a truly blank check. The ink contained in a standard blue ballpoint pen is easily removed with acetone, but black ink can be problematic. Experts say gel pens with black ink provide the best protection against check washing, since the gel ink resists chemical stripping and contains pigments that permeate the fibers of the check itself. A washed check cannot be used if it looks altered or bleached out.

One way that people can protect themselves against this type of fraud is to switch from blue to black ink when writing checks, and to use a gel pen whenever possible. Additional safety measures include taking bills and other outgoing mail containing checks directly to a post office or public mailbox. A personal mailbox with a lock may also discourage outsiders from stealing the mail, but this type of mailbox may not be usable for outgoing letters. Many experts recommend that people invest in checks containing anti-fraud elements such as electronic inks, hidden watermarks, or microprinted lines that cannot be photocopied or scanned clearly.


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Post 6

If you're ever in doubt about the security of a document, you can always go to a local branch of your bank and speak to someone there. If they can't help you, they can get you in touch with someone who does. And if someone gives you a check that you can't cash or deposit for whatever reason, the only thing you can do is go back to the person who wrote it, and have them issue you a new one or give you an alternative form of payment.

Post 5

My boss gave me a check today and I went over my name twice because the pen wasn't working. Now it's bold and the bank said they couldn't take it because I went over it. What can I do?

Post 4

My daughter lost her money orders after they were made out to utility companies. Do money orders have watermarks on them, to prevent washing? --Norma

Post 2

Using a chemical solvent such as acetone to remove ink might solve one problem, but it could also create others. You may want to consider using a low adhesive masking tape to cover up the offensive writing temporarily, then remove it after the reunion. If you would like those passages removed completely, you may want to seek out a professional who would use a more appropriate ink solvent and also have the proper tools to protect the rest of the pages.

Post 1

I have some old yearbooks that I would like to take to a class reunion. The thing that keeps me from taking them is that there as some less than desirable writings in them. Would acetone applied with a Q-Tip or a sponge applicator work to remove these undesirable items?

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