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Law enforcement, postal authorities suggest preventative measures

At least six Arlington residents reported apparent theft and alteration of checks that they had mailed in December in blue outdoor USPS mailboxes. The stolen checks were “washed” and then rewritten with new payees and bigger amounts -- in the thousands of dollars -- for deposit in third-party bank accounts. Many such stolen checks appear to have been mailed on the weekend of Dec. 16-17.

Arlington Police Department spokesman Capt. Richard Flynn said that this was the first such outbreak of check-washing incidents since a similar spate of thefts occurred in the summer. According to YourArlington's files, it also occurred in spring through fall 2022 and in early winter 2023.

“It's not surprising that [the criminals] would choose to operate just before Christmas, when mail volume is heavy and envelopes are more likely to contain checks. They like to use the end of a weekend when there are fewer pickups,” he said.

Amounts of successfully cashed altered checks included $14,800; $16,000; $6,200; two checks totaling $9,500; $14,600; and $4,200. However, one check that had been rewritten to $58,000 was stopped by the bank.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other online sources urge victims to notify banks as soon as possible about any suspected theft, and they also list several ways in which people can help themselves avoid becoming check-washing victims: 1) Pay bills online. 2) Deposit mail inside the post office. 3) Use indelible black gel ink when writing checks. 4) Order checks with extra security features. 5) Retrieve mail frequently. 6) Deposit mail before the day's final pickup. 7) Never leave outgoing mail in one's own mailbox overnight.

While the USPIS doesn't directly say that banks automatically reimburse victims of check fraud, it does mention that victims may be able to recover their losses through their bank's fraud protection policies. It takes time, however, for banks to conduct their own investigations; these are to be completed within 20 business days, but victims' lack of access to stolen funds during this period can be a major inconvenience.

 Flynn noted, without giving details, that multiple measures to tighten up mailbox security in Arlington are currently under consideration.

The following is based on selected Arlington Police Department logs from Dec. 26, 2023, through Jan, 1, 2024.

No arrests were reported.

Excerpts from the Arlington Police Department log:

Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023
5:20 p.m. – Disturbance. Police were called by a Mass. Ave. business manager saying that a male party had entered the store shouting, “Jesus” over and over until ordered to leave. Another male party was reportedly outside the store playing a guitar. When police arrived, both were gone.

Wednesday, Dec. 27
6 p.m. – Accident With Injury. A Waltham man was struck a glancing blow by a car's side mirror while crossing Mass. Ave. on the 1300 block, which includes Mill Street in Arlington Center. The driver, a Lexington woman, told police that because of poor visibility she hadn't seen the man until she was so close she had to swerve but that she “didn't swerve enough.” A witness on the scene told police that the man, wearing a black leather jacket, hadn't been very visible in the dim evening light, that he had crossed in the roadway instead of in a crosswalk and that he appeared not to have looked for traffic before crossing. After receiving a pedestrian citation, the man agreed to be taken to a local hospital for examination.

Friday, Dec. 29
11:14 a.m. –  Crash Without Injury. Vehicles each driven byArlington residents collided at a stop light at the intersection of Chestnut and Mystic streets. Airbags in both vehicles deployed. The female driver of the car that hit the other told police that she had a yellow light; the driver of the struck car claimed that he had a green light. Because there were no witnesses, no citations were written. Flynn commented that this scenario seems to happen frequently --  and that many such intersection crashes could be averted if drivers would only learn that yellow means slow down.

Saturday, Dec. 30
6:27 a.m. – Dumpster Fire. Grove Street residents called police and fire authorities to report a large fire in a heavily loaded dumpster. When officers arrived, they found that the blaze had melted the container's lid. Fire officials stayed to monitor the fire for an extended period of time. Police officers interviewed neighbors and found that one of them had a surveillance camera whose film taken that morning might help determine the fire's cause. An investigation is in progress.

Monday, Jan. 1, 2024
1:46 p.m. – Accident With Injury. A 62-year-old Arlington woman was struck by a car after entering a crosswalk at the intersection of Park and Wollaston avenues. Police arrived to find her lying on the ground with a head injury, breathing but initially unresponsive. EMS personnel attended to her, then took her by ambulance to a local hospital. The driver, a 61-year-old Arlington man, told police that the pedestrian had walked in front of the car when it was moving no more than 15 miles per hour. A witness, however, stepped forward to state the woman was well into the crosswalk at the moment of impact. Police proceeded to issue the man a crosswalk violation citation and further advised that he would be subject to an Imminent Threat investigation that could potentially cost him his license and possibly lead to additional charges. No information was released concerning the injured woman's identity or condition.

Dec. 21, 2023: Police blotter Dec. 12-18: Some trees, wires down due to recent storm

This column by YourArlington volunteer writer Chris Wilbur was published Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, based on information from Arlington Police Department daily logs, explanations from APD spokesman Capt. Richard Flynn, YourArlington's files and Wilbur's independent research into postal-crime prevention.