The post always gets through.  Or does it?   And there's much more at stake than a birthday card to Aunt Joan going astray.

I had a phone call from John the other day, a dairy farmer who lives just down the road.

A few weeks ago he wrote out a cheque for $45, popped it in an envelope, and got his wife to trot down the driveway to the rural delivery mailbox and post it, putting the little flag up.  They thought nothing more about it, until they got a call from their bank, asking did they know their account was overdrawn to the tune of $8400.

"We never get overdrawn on that account because it has a $500 limit, so it was news to us.  Luckily, the bank clerk noticed something was funny and got on the phone to us before the cheque got processed."

John says someone intercepted their mail and used solvent to erase the original recipient and amount, then wrote in their own versions. 

"My guess is they'd drive down the road late at night and help themselves to all the mail from boxes with the flags up.  They'd ditch all the letters, and once they'd collected 50 or 60 cheques, go to work on them.  They've probably opened accounts with a false identity, and used a bank card to clean them out."

The bank sent John a copy of the altered cheque.  "They'd washed everything off, except our signature and the Not Negotiable stamp.  We talked to a few people who had heard of it happening; a friend in Te Puke told me somebody stole his mail a while ago. Someone he knew was driving behind this person and saw mail being chucked out of the car as they drove down the road."

Hamilton Police sergeant Neil Fenwick said the practice, known as washing, happens from time to time.  He wasn't aware of any cases at the moment.

"It's been going on since the ark was around.  It's generally pretty random.

Often it's not until the bank rings the account holder that they're aware it's even happened."

Once the cheque has been washed, a new amount entered, and then presented, the police can investigate.  "It's fraud and carries a term of imprisonment of seven years."

The problem isn't limited to rural delivery and there are plenty of ways for cheques to get into the wrong hands, almost all of which were impossible to prevent.  It was important, he says, to scrutinise bank statements regularly.

Keith FitzPatrick, media manager at NZ Post Group, says theft from mailboxes does occur sporadically although there seems to be no pattern.

"An area can be targeted for a short period before those responsible moves on." 

He advises people to make the most of neighbour support, be alert to suspicious vehicles or activity in the area and report any incidents to the police, with details such as registration where possible.

In terms of items being delivered, he says clear the box as soon as possible.

"This may not be possible, say for lifestylers who work in town, and alternatives may be considered."

John's bank was National and while they wouldn't discuss individual clients, they did come up with suggestions for customers concerned about rural mailbox security.

Jessamy Malcolm, external communication manager at ANZ National said when writing cheques, use a pen with permanent ink, and always follow the correct cheque security measures:

  • The cheque has the payee's name on it
  • The words 'or bearer' are crossed out
  • The words 'not negotiable' or 'not transferable' are written within two parallel lines

She says banks have chequebooks available with 'not transferable' printed on them.  "Consider signing up for internet banking and keep an eye on your accounts, alert the bank to anything suspicious."

Kiwibank communication manager Bruce Thompson says it's very hard to protect against this sort of theft.

"In New Zealand, it's delivered to letterboxes which, in most cases, are unsecured.  In Britain, mail is put through the front door, which gives a higher level of security."

Bank staff always look carefully to make sure that the numbers and words match and haven't been altered.  All tellers, he says, are trained to detect altered cheques.

It takes a certain level of sophistication to wash the cheque competently, and not damage the cheque in some way.  "All bank cheques have a coloured background, so if you wash it, you also interfere with the background colour."

Banks work closely with police when it does happen.

"We would probably also freeze the account of the person who received the money, while a police investigation was underway."

In most cases, they would try to make sure the customer was reimbursed.  "Sometimes it has to be done through the courts, and sometimes we are able to do a recovery, it depends on the circumstances."

Cheques are far less frequently used these days because of internet banking and automatic payments.  "But cheques are still in use and there are risks associated with them."

But there are risks with all forms of transactions.  "There are risks with credit cards, ATM cards, internet banking, and even with cash.  If you are careful, protect your cards, protect your pin, and cross your cheques and bearer, take steps to protect yourself, banks will look after you."

So, it's a hard one.  John is going to post his mail from town, for a while yet.  I mentioned the saga of stolen cheques to an English friend who is not so certain delivery through the front door is always a good idea.

"We shared a house in the country, just out of Reading.  One flatmate cottoned on to the fact that cheques regularly came in for another person in the house, and he used to wait by the door every day, get the cheques and flick them into false accounts he'd set up.  She didn't notice for ages."

Scoundrels are everywhere.