May 4, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

We have learned to watch South Africa, among other places, to see what lies ahead of us in this pandemic. What is unfolding there now should open your eyes. New COVID-19 cases have risen 259% in just two weeks. COVID-19-related deaths increased by 18%.

(Johns Hopkins)

New variants (BA.4 and BA.5) are spreading in South Africa and infection rates have more than doubled, with positivity rates topping 20% in some places. Hospitalization rates are rising, too. But so far — and it is early — death rates have not risen. It is too early for scientists to know how severe the symptoms will be from these newest variants. It is also still too early to know if what is unfolding in South Africa will follow earlier virus patterns and spread globally.

Scientists will also be watching the newest South African wave to see if it signals that we can expect to see a new significant variant every six months or so, which has been the virus’ history until now. See this pattern in a graphic produced by professor Tom Wenseleers of KU Leuven in Belgium:

In America’s COVID-19 past, South Africa’s current infection rate would be high enough to ignite all sorts of reactions, including masking, distancing and so on. BA.4 and BA.5 have shown up in the U.S., but not yet in big numbers.

In a preprint study — and I try to warn you about preprints because they have not undergone peer-review confirmation, and this study is small — researchers say the newest variants seem to do an end-run around whatever immunity people might have built up from a previous COVID-19 infection. And unvaccinated people are even more susceptible to the new variants. In South Africa, only 36% of the population is vaccinated. This could be a significant problem in the making.

One of the most surprising new developments is how Puerto Rico, which had one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates and lowest infection rates, is now topping the U.S. new cases chart. 95% of eligible people in Puerto Rico have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. Experts believe one reason for the increase is that one-third of Puerto Ricans have an immunity that comes from a previous infection, which is half the rate of the rest of the U.S.

(Johns Hopkins)

COVID-19 ICU admissions (Puerto Rico Department of Health)

One look at the Puerto Rico Department of Health website makes one wonder why all states cannot post daily updated data that is easy to find, read and track. Is there a connection between the low infection and death rate, the high vaccination rate and the stellar reporting?

Criminals steal checks from US mail — and then the real trouble starts

A number of newsrooms are reporting on a wave of check thefts from the U.S. mail.

NPR, Fox5 (in Washington, D.C.), Bloomberg, NBC 10 (in Philly) and The Washington Post all report that thieves are breaking into post office drop boxes and stealing checks that Americans write to pay utility bills and rent. They use fingernail polish remover to erase information written on the checks and write in a new payee and amount or sell the check on black market sites. The Washington Post reports:

During the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a massive spike in checks being stolen from the mail across the United States and used in financial fraud, authorities and researchers say. In March, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service alerted the Justice Department.

The stolen checks trend is linked to a “significant increase” in armed robberies of USPS letter carriers to steal arrow keys, which can open most mailboxes across an entire Zip code, according to a U.S. Postal Inspection Service advisory to the Justice Department. In some cases, one Zip code can encompass an entire city. The primary motive behind these robberies, the March 7 advisory said, is financial theft: “Criminals are stealing mail … to obtain checks, financial instruments, and personal identifying information to commit bank fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud and identity theft.”

The Post points to the Georgia State University Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group, which collected evidence about check thefts during the pandemic. The group says what showed up first in Florida, California, Texas and New York spread nationwide fast. Thieves market stolen checks on social media backchannels.

Buyers remove the information on the checks that they steal largely from blue postal mail drop boxes. You may wonder how thieves get into those blue boxes. One possibility: The Georgia State researchers say there is an online market for stolen and copied mailbox keys.

The researchers say thieves charge on average “$175 for personal checks and $250 for business ones — payable in bitcoin — but always negotiable and cheaper in bulk.” In some cases, the checks are used to steal the check writer’s identity to produce fake passports, enter bank accounts and open credit cards.

The Georgia State University researchers told NPR:

Criminals have a pretty easy time when it comes to getting their hands on your checks.

“Some of them simply go to your home mailbox and take the mail you left for the post office to pick up,” said David Maimon, an associate professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia State University and director of the Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group.

“Others simply go to the blue boxes with the keys that they were able to steal from some of the mailmen out there, empty the boxes and get the checks that some of us send to our utility companies or our loved ones when we want to send a gift. That’s how easy it is.”

Maimon wrote for The Conversation:

Criminals were committing check fraud as soon as the first modern checks were cut in the 18th century in England – and the authorities were already looking for ways to prevent it.

While there’s little historical data on this type of fraud, we do know it became particularly problematic in the 1990s as the internet made finding willing buyers of illicit items easier than ever. For example, financial institutions estimated they lost about US$1 billion to check fraud from April 1996 to September 1997.

But what may seem a little surprising is that its resurgence now at a time when the vast majority of transactions are conducted electronically and check use continues to wane.

In our observations, we came across an average of 1,325 stolen checks being sold every week in October 2021, up from 634 per week in September and 409 in August. Although little historical data on this practice exists, a one-week pilot study we conducted in October 2020 places these numbers in some perspective. Back then, we observed only 158 stolen checks during that period.

Furthermore, these figures likely only represent a small fraction of the number of checks actually being stolen and sold. We focused on only 60 markets, when in fact there are thousands currently active.

(The Conversation)

The Postal Service has very little to say publicly about the thefts, only that it is investigating. The Georgia State investigators offered this advice:

  • Avoid mailing checks, if you can.
  • If you do mail checks, drop letters containing checks inside your local post office.
  • Use a gel-tip pen to write your checks. That ink is more difficult to “wash” than a ballpoint, Postal inspectors say.
  • Don’t raise the flag on your mailbox when you put something in there for the mail carrier to pick up.
  • The Postal Service also has some advice: “Deposit outgoing mail into USPS Blue Collection Boxes before the last collection or inside your local Post Office.”

You may be wondering who is legally responsible if somebody steals your check out of the mail and cashes it. Does the bank have any responsibility to be sure you are the one who wrote the check? The Legal Beagle website explains:

There are no federal laws that regulate a bank’s handling of stolen checks. The responsibility for legislating banking laws pertaining to check theft is left to each state. However, there are laws related to a bank’s liability when a stolen check is presented within the Uniform Rules for Collection (URC). These rules are administered and published by the International Chamber of Commerce, and issues related to bank liability regarding stolen checks are found in ICC Publication No. 522. Article 22 of this publication states that the presenting bank is responsible for ensuring that the check appears to be correct and complete but is not responsible for the authenticity of the signature of the person presenting the check or her authority to do so.

There are a variety of ways that an account holder may seek relief in the case of a stolen check. According to the Federal Trade Commission, federal laws apply to electronic funds transfers, and state laws apply to paper documents such as checks. The FTC website suggests that anyone who is the victim of a check theft should ask the paying bank or depositor bank to contact the check verification vendor she uses so that retailers will be alerted not to cash any other checks drawn on the account. The account holder is also advised to stop payment and close the account on which the check was drawn. It is important to take these steps in a timely manner (varying from 10 to 30 days, depending on the bank and the account agreement) to avoid being liable for the forgery.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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