What to know about check writing to avoid fraud?

What to know about check writing to avoid fraud?

Typewriters disappeared, and then cassette tapes and encyclopedias disappeared too. But paper checks are a piece of our analog past that persists.

US consumers and businesses wrote 11.2 billion checks in 2021, much lower than the 42 billion recorded at the beginning of the century. Despite the sharp decline, check fraud is on the rise – costing financial institutions billions and throwing many check writers’ finances into disarray.

After my colleague Ron Lieber and I wrote about rising check fraud, concerned readers wrote to us with questions: Is there a safer way to write a check when necessary? What about digital payments – aren’t they also vulnerable to fraud?

Many Americans still write checks to pay rent or avoid credit card charges. They may also cling to checks for cultural reasons or for psychological reasons – for example, because writing them is a manual process, almost like using cash in an increasingly cashless society.

So little rectangular slips of paper remain in use, even as digital payment methods like Venmo and Zelle have achieved verb status – just Venmo me! – and continue to gain popularity.

Here are some tips on how to conduct business as securely as possible in both the paper and digital sectors.

Are there some conventions to keep in mind when writing checks?

It’s a return to basics, but it’s worth revisiting: When writing the payee’s name, use a full line or draw a line to the end so no one can add additional names or more information. Do the same when you write the amount in words and numbers.

It’s also important to sign your check the same way every time. We’ve heard from readers whose check payments were stopped because the handwriting was deemed suspicious. This is a good thing, but if your account gets closed due to any investigation then it can put your financial life in jeopardy.

And remember, when you write a check for “cash,” anyone can use it – so proceed with caution or avoid doing so altogether.

What is the best pen to use when writing a check?

First, let’s back up and explain why pens matter: Thieves steal checks from the mail and then “wash off” the ink using basic ingredients like nail polish remover, leaving the signature untouched. Criminals usually rewrite the check to their own account or sell the check on the dark web.

No pen is completely safe, but gel pens are the safest: unlike ballpoint pens, whose ink sits on top of the paper, gel is more difficult to wash because the ink Penetrates paper fiberAccording to Karen Boyer, OneCheck fraud expert.

Are there any banks that have additional security measures, like sending strange checks to customers by sending text messages?

there are. Not all banks do this, but for example, Capital One contacts customers via text, email or phone when it sees an “unusual check” and wants to make sure it’s legitimate (as that credit-card issuers often do). Customers can also create alerts in the bank’s mobile app to receive an email when a check is paid.

Bank of America will also reach out to customers when it detects out-of-character checks. Contact your bank to see if it offers something similar, and make sure it has your preferred method of communication on file.

Should I keep a separate account just for writing checks?

Some readers suggested this strategy, and it seems to be a smart strategy for people who write personal checks regularly. By keeping a separate account with enough money to cover the checks you write, you can limit any potential losses.

Richard Stutman of Boston adopted that strategy when one of his checks was stolen and washed, even though he made sure to mail it inside his local post office. He has two checking accounts: one is used for direct deposit and online banking, while the other has only a small balance to cover checks he can’t avoid writing. “It’s a small inconvenience, but I take comfort in knowing that I’m never at risk for more than a few hundred dollars,” he said.

Should I stop mailing checks?

United States Postal Service said Your safest bet is to deposit mail inside your local post office or hand it off to a postal carrier.

If you have to mail an important or large payment, it may be wise to pay for tracking – for example certified mail, or signature confirmation upon delivery – as a security measure.

But here is something you should absolutely not do. Some residential mailboxes have small flags that, when raised, signal to postal carriers that you want them to collect your outgoing mail. This is an invitation to thieves, indicating that there may be a valuable check inside. Empty your mailbox frequently and don’t leave mail inside overnight.

Is the USPS doing anything to address the increase in crime?

Yes. The Postal Service teamed up with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to launch an initiative Campaign Last May a crackdown on postal crimes, including attacks on its letter carriers, led to more than 630 arrests for robbery and mail theft.

You may also have noticed that the blue USPS mailboxes lining the streets have new features like smaller slots, making it more difficult to send mail. They have also begun installing electronic locks on mailboxes, replacing the old arrow locks that can be opened using keys and which provide access to all mailboxes in a specific area. Those keys have become a popular item, stolen by criminals who have increasingly targeted mail carriers.

If your check is stolen from the mail, the Postal Service urges you to report the theft as soon as possible by filing a complaint online at www.uspis.gov/report or by calling 877-876-2455.

Should I take pictures of checks I put in the mail as proof?

It can’t hurt. Customers who become victims of check theft eventually see any stolen, altered checks (or fraudulent checks drawn up by a criminal using your information) in their online banking register. Having the original copy can help in investigation if necessary. (Unless, of course, the image was stolen from your phone in some way.)

Is there anything I should keep in mind when depositing a check, especially if I’m doing it remotely using my bank’s mobile app?

Simply endorse or sign the back of a check immediately before depositing it. And when you use mobile deposit, be sure to write “For mobile deposit only” below your signature. (Some banks provide a box to tick if you are depositing the check remotely.)

Is the bank’s online system the safest way to make payments? Or is it unsafe when it results in a paper check, even if the whole thing is supposed to be electronic?

Banks, without question, recommend their online bill-pay platforms over paper checks. These systems are highly secure, especially when they already have your payees in their system and can send electronic payments directly to them. But what happens if the payee can’t accept electronic payments?

This appears to vary by bank. If a bank doesn’t know the payee, it will usually send a paper check on your behalf, but the check may contain your account number and other information, making it susceptible to fraud. They are sent from banks’ mail rooms, which may be more secure than metal boxes kept on the street. But this method will not prevent a thief from potentially removing the check from the check receiving box.

Some banks have made this process more secure. For example, Chase’s online bill-pay service sends checks on your behalf but they don’t have your account and routing numbers printed on them.

Why don’t all banks do this? It’s worth calling your institution to ask.

Can I cross out my account number from the bottom of the cheque?

No. Don’t cross it. The account number and routing number on the bottom of the check are used to deduct the money, letting the bank know which account the funds belong to. Cutting it could render the check unreadable and raise a red flag, said Chase spokesman Jerry Dubrowski. If you want to avoid sharing your account information, he suggested, use online bill pay.

What’s the best way to pay charities or other organizations that charge fees if you use a credit card?

Donating directly from your bank account is generally the most cost-effective option, according to Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer at Charity Navigator, a website that rates organizations. But there may also be a small fee, which is why many people turn to checks.

Platforms like Venmo are increasingly becoming an option, but Mr. Scally cautions that donors should never send money to personal accounts — they should make sure their transactions are sent to a verified charity account in order to receive a tax receipt. Is directed into.

He also said that using a credit card “acts as a security barrier against potential scams, allowing donors to file a complaint and get their money back if they are aware of any risks associated with the donation they are making.” Fall in.”

What about wedding and other occasional gifts?

Sending a monetary gift through Venmo or Zelle feels, well, transactional. If you choose to write a check, you can hand it to the recipient to avoid the risks of suspicious mail.

Some couples register for “cash” gifts, which can be put toward a honeymoon or down payment. Unfortunately, many of these gift payments come with a fee. Zola does not charge Any If the gift giver pays Venmo,

Are there any additional protections for businesses that write checks regularly?

Banks generally offer businesses Diversity Of investigation security Service, Involved This is known as “positive pay”, which compares the checks the business has issued to the checks presented for encashment. If there is a mismatch due to alteration in the check, the problem can be caught before the check is cashed.

Similar security services are offered for ACH or transactions that are debited directly from a business bank account.

What do I need to know about person-to-person payment platforms like Zelle and Venmo?

These apps – Zelle, Venmo, Cash App – are growing rapidly because they are fast, easy to use, and usually free. But as my colleagues have pointed out, they come with their own risks. Treat them as if you were dealing with cash, only transact with people you trust and make slow transactions when you’re used to them. If the app asks you to verify the recipient’s identity, take the time to do so. Once you send the money, you may not be able to get it back.

Zelle, through which consumers made 2.7 billion payments during the 12 months ending September 30, totaling $758 billion, is the largest digital payments operator. It’s owned by the country’s seven largest financial institutions and is embedded inside the bank accounts that have access to it (about 2,100 financial institutions participate in the Zelle network, meaning people with 165 million accounts can use it. Can).

federal regulator Service providers need refund Customers lose their money if an “unauthorized” transfer is made through these services, but not if a person is scammed into authorizing the transaction. Last year, Zelle said it would require its participating banks to return funds to customers in certain situations — namely, certain fraudulent scams. In these, a criminal may pose as an institution with which you already do business, such as a bank, utility or mobile phone provider.

Ben Chance, Chief Fraud Risk Management Officer, Early Warning Services The company that operates the Zelle network said that these authorized transfers now pose the biggest threat.

“Think of it like cash,” Mr. Chance said. “If someone is pressuring you to make a fast decision, it’s time to step back.”

Ron Lieber Contributed to the reporting.

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