Opinion

Column: Pay your property tax bill online to avoid risk of check-washing fraud 

As the March 1 due date approaches for Cook County property owners to pay their First Installment 2023 tax bills, I encourage people to pay online. It’s more convenient — and much safer.

People who still pay their bills by mailing a check are at risk of falling prey to check-washing fraud. That’s when thieves intercept checks from the mail and alter them to steal money from bank accounts.

Paying your taxes online at cookcountytreasurer.com is easy — and free. There is no fee to pay online.

My office collects about $18 billion a year in property taxes from owners of 1.8 million parcels. During my 25 years leading this office, we have embraced technological advancements, including adding the option to pay online at no cost. 

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When I first walked into the office, $30 million in unopened checks sat in cardboard boxes on the floor. Some were there for 12 weeks. The undeposited funds earned no interest for Cook County. I immediately set up a lockbox at a bank and within the first year interest earned went from $4.8 million to nearly $19 million.

I thought of those uncashed checks when I saw recent reports about a surge in check-washing fraud in Cook County and across the country. Several Chicago-area news outlets have reported on recent incidents of thieves stealing checks from mailboxes. Those reports should serve as a warning to those who still mail checks to pay bills.

Those thieves typically soak checks in chemicals. That allows them to remove names and increase dollar amounts. Then they cash the checks.

That’s what happened to Pedro and Dinah Zaragoza of Cicero,CBS2 Chicago recently reported. Dinah, 88, wrote and mailed a $62 check to Nicor July 15. The check was stolen and $4,200 was withdrawn from their bank account. Their bank eventually refunded the money after CBS2 inquired on the couple’s behalf.

Police and the U.S. Postal Service Inspection Service recently warned residents of Winnetka and Glenview to take caution after dozens of residents were scammed by check-washing incidents, the Chicago Tribune reported.The Postal Inspection Service provides information on ways to protect yourself from check-washing fraud.

You can avoid the risk of check-washing fraud by transferring funds electronically to pay your property tax bill. Simply visit cookcountytreasurer.com and click on the blue box that says Pay Online for Free. When you search using your address or Property Index Number, a picture of your property should appear. That tells you that you’ve found the correct parcel.

You should see amounts due for Tax Year 2023 that are billed in 2024. Click on a small blue box that says Pay Now. You can pay for free from a checking or savings account using E-Check, an Automated Clearing House debit.

You’ll be prompted to provide your bank routing number and bank account number. You will also be asked to provide contact information, including a phone number and email address. You should receive an email acknowledging the transaction.

The website offers a secure way to pay your tax bills and avoid the risk of check-washing fraud. You can also use the website to discover if you’re eligible for a refund because of previous overpayments or missed exemptions. Visit cookcountytreasurer.com to learn more.

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