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Cook County man mailed 2 checks for less than $50; they were altered and cashed for more than $16K | Crime and courts

THORNTON — Jim Berschinski at first thought he was being scammed when he got a call from his bank, Fifth Third, asking whether he had written a check for $8,000 to someone named Martez Campbell.

Fifth Third Bank had called his cellphone, and the Thornton resident wondered if it was a fraudster attempting to extract private information from him.

“I went and called the number on my house phone and it said it was Fifth Third’s fraud department, so it was OK and I talked to them,” he said.

As it turned out, a check he had written March 25 for $46.23 to Commonwealth Edison had been swiped, altered and cashed for $8,000. Berschinski was able to get the funds returned to his account, but he is still working with Fifth Third on a second altered check.

That check also was written March 25 and mailed that day at the collection boxes outside the Thornton post office. It was for $3.62 for the balance he owed on a medical procedure. It was also intercepted and altered to $8,110 and cashed soon after.

The weekend after he’d mailed off the checks, the outside collection boxes at the post office were broken into, and Thornton police say other people who deposited mail had checks stolen and altered.

The US Postal Inspection Service confirmed the outside collection boxes were broken into during that period soon after Berschinski had mailed his checks, and that postal inspectors and Thornton police are continuing to investigate.

However, Thornton Police Chief Glenn Beckman said Thursday his department is not involved in any formal investigation, and that the Thornton post office did not report to police that the collection boxes had been broken into.

But he said his department has determined that eight people had mail containing checks taken from the post office boxes and most, like Berschinski, were also victims of checks being altered and cashed.

Berschinski said he went to the post office the weekend after he mailed his checks and saw the slots had been taped closed and the backs of the boxes had appeared to have been pried open.

The three collection boxes were removed soon after, but new ones will soon take their place, according to a US Postal Service spokesman.

While something alerted Fifth Third’s fraud department to flag the ComEd check as suspicious, the other check, which had a forgery of Berschinski’s signature and was made payable to Gandre Holman, “just slipped through the cracks” as far as being flagged as potentially fraudulent, Berschinski said he was told by the bank.

The retired union insulator said he is working with Fifth Third to get the money back into his account, but has been told it could take months before that happens.

A spokesman for Fifth Third said Thursday the bank could not provide further comment.

problem

The Chicago Tribune and other Tribune suburban publications, including the Daily Southtown and Pioneer Press, have reported in recent months on mail thefts. Berschinski contacted the Southtown after reading about a Chicago Heights man, Don Tornow, who had a similar problem with a check he had mailed that was altered then cashed.

Tornow sent a $10 check in early December as a holiday tip to the person who delivers his Southtown, and the check somehow was altered to show a payment of $9,500 and was cashed two months later.

Tornow spent weeks working with his bank, Chase, to get the money returned to his account. He had read in the Southtown about recent news reports of stolen checks and thought he may have fallen victim.

In early December he had dropped off three checks, including the $10 one as well as two other checks for his water and gas bills, which were never cashed and Tornow later voided them. Tornow had dropped them in the outside collection boxes at the Chicago Heights post office.

The postal inspection service said there were no reports of mail thefts at the Chicago Heights post office around the time in early December that Tornow had mailed his three checks.

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The Southtown earlier this year reported about thefts of mail from outside collection boxes at the New Lenox post office, which prompted the removal in late February of the three boxes.

Postal authorities began an investigation in early January after a report of theft at the three outside collection boxes at the New Lenox post office. After the initial theft report, two of the boxes had been secured with tape in a way to prevent them from being used.

Then, New Lenox police investigated a Feb. 21 incident in which one of the boxes was pried open, after which all three boxes were removed. The boxes have not yet been replaced, a postal service spokesman said Thursday.

Reporting by the Pioneer Press showed numerous instances of checks mailed from the Park Ridge post office that had been intercepted, altered and cashed by people who were not the intended recipients.

A Dolton man, Kelvin Dortch Jr., has been charged in federal court in connection with alleged mail thefts at the Park Ridge post office, and a status hearing in that case is set for July 22, according to a recent court filing.

Fraud prevention tips

Banks, including Fifth Third, suggest customers can avoid check fraud, such as check washing, by using online or mobile bill payment methods rather than paying bills by sending a check in the mail.

If paying by check, using a gel pen is advised since the ink does a better job of permeating the fibers on the check, making it more difficult to alter payees and amounts using chemicals and solvents.

Banks and the postal inspection service also recommend dropping checks off inside their post office rather than at neighborhood collection boxes or those outside the post office. Thieves use fishing line or blocks and bottles coated with adhesives to “fish” at night at outside collection points to pull out envelopes, they say.

The postal inspection service also recommends not leaving letters and packages in your mailbox or at your door for any length of time and, when dropping off mail at outside mailboxes, timing it before the last collection of the day or depositing them in the slots inside the postoffice.

If you are expecting a check, credit card or other valuable mail that is overdue, check with the sender, the service recommends.

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