Reducing the risk of check and financial fraud

Dear Consumer Ed:

Since the front of my personal checks show my bank’s routing number and my bank account number, what’s to stop someone from using that information to have their bills paid through an automatic draft from my account? It doesn’t seem safe to basically give your bank account number to anyone you write a check to. What can I do to make myself safer when it comes to writing checks?

Consumer Ed says:

You are wise to be concerned. Due to the sensitive financial information a check contains, writing checks can put you at greater risk of various types of fraud and identity theft. Along with the scenario you mention, a thief could use this information to make online purchases, create counterfeit checks or transfer money from your account to a prepaid card or the thief’s own bank account.

Here are some ways to reduce the risk of check and financial fraud:

  • Stop using paper checks or at least limit their use as much as possible. Be extremely selective about whom you write checks to, choosing to do so only when the person or business is well known and trusted.
  • Leave your checkbook at home, in a safe place, when you are not using it.
  • If you are mailing a check, deposit it in a USPS mailbox or at the post office. Do not leave it in an unprotected mailbox with the flag raised, where a stranger could steal it. If you are ordering new checks, be aware of when they will be delivered, especially if you are using an unprotected mailbox.
  • Always reconcile your bank statements with your checkbook, so you can catch any unauthorized charges and report them to your bank right away.
  • Instead of writing checks, consider online bill pay, which is set up through your bank. You provide your bank with information for the payee (e.g. your cell phone provider or the power company), along with the amount to be paid and the desired payment date. You can even set up recurring payments if the amount will be the same every month. The bank initiates the payment by transferring the money from your account to the payee, without ever providing your routing number or account number to anyone.
  • Credit cards and debit cards are other alternatives to writing checks. If someone gets ahold of your card information and uses it to make an unauthorized transaction, you can contact the bank or credit card issuer to request a chargeback, cancel the compromised card and get a replacement card, which is much less of a hassle than having to close down a bank account and open up a new one. If deciding whether to pay via a credit card vs. a debit card, keep in mind that credit cards offer greater protections against fraud, and, unlike debit cards, the fraudulent charge(s) won’t diminish the amount of money in your bank account. 

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