Vel Grundy of Whitehaven watches a crime unfold -- right on her kitchen table.
"Oh my gosh! That is just frickin' amazing!" she exclaims.
She's watching the Action News 5 Investigators demonstrate another trick of the crime trade: "check-washing."
Obviously, we're not going to tell you what chemical the crooks use to do it. But they're getting their hands on the checks you have already written -- either right out of the mail or right out of your mailboxes. They immerse the checks into the chemical bath. The bath pulls the ink right off the check, but it protects the paper, leaving the account number and personal information intact.
The result is a nearly brand-new check. A brand-new BLANK check.
"It's just amazing how it eats away the ink and leaves intact everything else that is pre-printed on the check," Grundy says.
It brings back bad memories for Grundy. Ten years ago, a thief stole her checks and her identity.
"I just remember feeling like I was a rape victim, and nobody believed me," she says. "It was kind of like someone had killed me, and I didn't exist anymore."
Rick Harlow, Special Agent-In-Charge of the U. S. Secret Service's Memphis office, says check-washing happens, but it is uncommon. He says crooks generally consider it a high-maintenance crime.
He says what they really want is the account number on your checks. They'll take that number, plug it into a payroll-check software package you can buy at any office supply store and create stacks of counterfeit payroll checks with your account number on them.
"It's on legitimate check stock. It has a legitimate account number," Harlow says.
He says the checks appear so legitimate that nobody realizes they are counterfeit until they have cleared two banks - the crook's bank and the victim's bank.
"That can run anywhere from five days to two weeks. In the meantime, the bad guy's got his money," says Harlow.
Harlow recommends NEVER putting your bills in your personal mailbox -- that's an instant invitation to a thief. Either buy a padlocked mailbox with a slit that allows mail to get in, but it can't get out without a key -- or hand-deliver your bills and business mail to your post office.
When you write your checks, you can prevent "check-washing" by using gel pens with ink that cannot be washed. The Action News 5 Investigators recommend the Uni-Ball Signo 207 pen. It's specially formulated to prevent check fraud. We tried to wash a check written with the Signo's ink, and the ink would not fade, smear or disappear.