Low-Tech Fraud Is Ramping Up – Here's What to Know

by the editorial team at Citi |June 22, 2023

Advances in digital technology are making it more difficult for scammers to steal money, so many perpetrators are returning to more traditional diversion tactics. Recognizing the signs and knowing how to respond can help you protect your finances.

Automated teller machines (ATMs) and paper checks are so ubiquitous and ingrained in our banking routines that, often, we use them without a second thought. That's one reason fraudsters are increasingly finding them useful in stealing funds. Reports of check fraud filed by banks last year nearly doubled to a whopping 680,000, according to a recent alert from the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. And instances of ATM schemes continue to crop up. "These were originally isolated to certain geographic regions," says John Mansfield, vice president of fraud policy and prevention at Citi. "But now ATM distraction schemes have begun to spread across the U.S. and internationally."

Learning what these ploys look like is key to keeping your money safe, which is why we've broken down the basics of each. Read on for details, plus top tips to help you steer clear of them.

Close up of a woman writing a check

Check fraud

How it works: Even with all the banking that happens digitally these days, paper checks are still used often enough that fraudsters are targeting the mail, says James Stavig, a fraud risk officer at Citi. Some have even ambushed postal clerks to steal mailbox keys. When these criminals get their hands on checks, "they change the recipient's name and dollar amount using various forgery techniques," he says, including bathing them in household chemicals to leave blank spaces they can fill in. They can also use account information from checks to produce forged ones.

What to do: Ideally, hand your mail directly to a mail clerk or, if you're dropping it in a collection box, do this close to the pickup time so checks don't sit there overnight, Stavig suggests. (The same goes if you need to leave mail in your own mailbox at home.)

When writing a check, he adds, "use indelible ink, which is more difficult to 'wash' from the check." (The Uni-Ball 207 gel pen is one reliable choice.) For a nominal extra fee, you can also purchase high-security checks from your bank; these are designed with multiple anti-fraud features such as chemical-wash detection or thermochromic ink that disappears when heat is applied. And it's always a good idea to closely monitor activity on your account to catch any unauthorized transactions.

Another option is to change your payment method, notes Kenneth Conner, vice president of scam policy and communications at Citi. "If you haven't explored digital payments, this is a great alternative to checks," he says, "because it allows for a much faster and more secure movement of funds."

A man drops an envelope into a mailbox

ATM distraction fraud


How it works: Fraudsters pose as actual consumers waiting in line to use an ATM. Standing close behind you, they view your PIN number as you enter it. Next, they ask you a question or stealthily drop money by your feet and then point it out to you as though they're doing you a favor. "Once they've taken your attention away from the ATM transaction, they pickpocket your card or remove it from the dispenser and replace it with a fake version," Mansfield says. "This means they now have what they need to withdraw money from your account."

What to do: Choose your ATM vestibule wisely. "Avoid any that aren't well-lit, have unlocked doors or are directly out on the street," Mansfield says, "and when you enter the vestibule, make sure the door closes behind you." Additionally, be on the lookout for suspicious people who may approach you. "You can use mirrors positioned on the machine to see behind you," he notes.

It's important to limit your interactions with others and avoid multi-tasking while you're using the ATM. During your transaction, "be sure to block the view of any bystanders, and don't take your eyes off the screen and card slot," Mansfield advises, noting you'll also want to act quickly when the bills are dispensed. "Put your money away and take your card and receipt immediately," he says, "and check the card to ensure that it's yours and hasn't been switched with a card in another name. If it has, let your financial institution know immediately."

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