Remitting a paper check for payment is something of a dying art in this age of technology. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York indicates that the number of checks written in the United States has been consistently declining since the mid-1990s.
Issuing a check involves taking a pen in hand and actually writing pertinent information on a paper form – the check itself. The recipient of the check is then tasked with somehow presenting that piece of paper to your bank so the money can be debited from your account. They can deposit it into their own bank account or hand it over in exchange for cash at your bank. That’s a lot to go through when you can simply tap a finger on your phone or your computer to make payments instead.
That said, sending a paper check can sometimes be necessary, and some people still prefer to make their payments the good, old-fashioned way. Mailing that check after you’ve written it isn’t without risk, however.
Types of Checks You Might Mail
Banks offer various types of checks, from personal checks to cashier’s checks and money orders. Personal checks tend to be the most risky because the others come with built-in safeguards.
A money order isn’t attached to a bank account. You literally purchase one in a requested dollar amount and the issuer – a financial institution or a retailer – takes that money from you, usually in the form of cash or by debit card, then prints the money order and hands the piece of paper over to you for a small fee. A cashier’s check works in much the same way, but you would get these directly from your bank and the bank debits the money from your account.
Unlike personal checks, cashier’s checks and money orders don’t have to be presented to your bank for payment from your account because you’ve already paid for them.
Read More: How to Pay Using a Checking Account
Risks of Sending a Check Through the Postal Service
The potential pitfalls of placing a personal check in the mail are all associated with the fact that the check links directly to your account and to you. You’re surrendering it, not personally handing it over to another individual. It might sit unattended in someone's mailbox for hours after being delivered. You might make payment to a company with numerous employees, any of whom might walk off with that envelope. The check might be stolen or simply lost, ultimately falling into the wrong hands.
Look at your check. In all likelihood, your name and address are printed on there, and maybe even your phone number. Your bank’s routing number usually appears at the bottom next to your account number. Anyone who has possession of your check also has your account number and the identity of the bank where you keep your money, not to mention your signature, which could be forged for other fraudulent purposes.
A thief can use all this information to create or order numerous additional checks from a retailer, all bearing your personal information. They can use them to draw money from your account, and your bank will most likely honor them, provided that you have a sufficient balance to cover them.
A thief wouldn’t necessarily have to go to all this trouble, however. They can do what you didn’t do and use your bank account and routing numbers to make purchases online. They can simply take a photo of the check on their phone and submit it to their own bank account via mobile deposit. Then they might toss it into the trash, where yet another person might come across it.
Some banks have taken to masking or deleting your account number on checks. They use an internal code number to identify your account instead.
You Can Take Some Precautions
You can take some steps to safeguard the mailing process if you find yourself in a position where you have no choice but to write a paper check and turn it over to the U.S. Postal Service.
Don’t just slide that check into an envelope and send it on its way. Tuck it inside a sheet of paper, preferably colored paper, then place that into the envelope just as you would a letter. Placing the check inside a greeting card and mailing works as well. You’re effectively camouflaging what you’re mailing. No one can hold the envelope up to the light and say, “Aha! It’s a check!”
Mail your check directly at the post office. Don’t leave it vulnerable in your mailbox for the postal worker to retrieve when they drop off your own mail.
You can also avert problems with the mailing process by using the post office’s special delivery options, such as certified mail, rather than just sticking a stamp on an envelope and hoping for the best. This can’t protect the check when it reaches its destination, but it’s a start. And you can request that your paper check be shredded or destroyed after the recipient deposits it via their smartphone or other electronic means.
Finally, keep an eye on your account balance so you know when the check has cleared. You might want to stop payment on it if an unusual amount of time passes without it being presented for payment. This might be an indication that it’s lost or in the wrong hands.
Is Writing a Check Really Necessary?
Some businesses and government agencies still prefer to receive paper checks, even in the millennium and particularly rather than accept cash, but this is becoming increasingly rare. And it doesn’t necessarily follow that you must mail them a paper check. You have other options.
Most utility companies, insurance companies, mortgage lenders and many other businesses maintain websites these days where you can make electronic payments to them online. Yes, you’re still providing them with your bank account number and your bank’s routing number, but you’re doing so directly. You’re not placing a piece of paper bearing that information into a mailbox. Of course, you want to take care of this on your own personal computer or phone, not one to which the pubic has access, like a computer at your local library.
Your bank almost certainly has a website as well, and you can usually ask them to send a check for you, but this might not be much of a precaution. In some cases, they too, simply mail a paper check on your behalf, but with any luck, it won’t bear your personal account number. And you can usually request that your bank remit an electronic payment or cashier’s check instead.
Consider using a P2P electronic payment service, which works much like those cashier’s checks and money orders. You pay the provider, and the provider pays the entity you want to submit payment to. Think PayPal, Venmo and Zelle.
Read More: 6 Best Mobile Payment Apps
- Checkissuing: How to Send a Check Through the Mail Safely
- BankFive: How to Protect Yourself When Using Paper Checks
- Policygenius: Checks – What They Are and How to Use Them
- Federal Reserve Bank of New York: Check Processing
- Bankrate: This Is What Happens When You Write a Check
- InCharge: Personal Checks vs. Electronic Bill Payment – Which One Is Safer?
- Cleveland.com: Paper Checks Aren’t as Safe as You Think; Electronic Payments Urged by FTC
- FDIC. "Consumer Assistance & Information—Check 21." Accessed March 26, 2020.
- First Data. "Electronic Checks: The Low-Risk, Low-Cost Way to Accept Online Payments." Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. "Checking Accounts: Understanding Your Rights." Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. "Answers About Bank Errors." Accessed March 26, 2020.
- Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. "Answers about Bank Errors." Accessed March 26, 2020.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.