AUSTIN (KXAN) — Law enforcement and tax officials in Travis County are trying to get to the bottom of a string of property tax payment thefts.

“These checks were stolen from the mail, washed and cashed,” said Travis County Tax Assessor Bruce Elfant. “This is the first time we’ve seen this type of theft of property tax payments, but we’re aware this theft is becoming more prevalent across Texas and the nation.”

He said his office has forwarded nine cases of the stolen property tax checks over to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. To clarify, these are checks property owners have made out to Travis County. The checks have averaged about $13,000 for a total of roughly $117,000.

Elfant encouraged people to pay their property taxes online to avoid this.

“Unfortunately we can’t forgive the property tax,” he said. “We really encourage them to work with their bank. There have been instances where the bank has made them whole, but that’s not necessarily going to happen every time. And really to make that a possibility, time is of the essence. This can’t be weeks or months later after the fact.”

He also urged people who have sent checks in through the mail to monitor them and make sure the tax office receives them by Jan. 31. If the check is late – even because it was stolen – you could face a 7% interest charge.

“We take this investigation very seriously,” said Sheriff Sally Hernandez.

U.S. Postal Inspector Silvia Torres said “every mailbox from a collection box to a neighborhood box has security measures in place. However, we know criminals will use any means, any methods to gain access.”

She offered the following tips regarding sending important documents through the U.S. Postal Service:

  • If you plan to place a check in a blue U.S. Postal Service bin, do it before the last scheduled pickup of the day. Times are posted on the mailboxes
  • Bring your check inside a post office and drop it in the box in the lobby

“These items, whether they’re a card, a gift… are attractive to thieves,” said Torres.

Hernandez urged people to call the sheriff’s office if they see suspicious activity around mailboxes.

“We’d rather them call us before when it’s simple and silly than later when it’s a theft,” she said.