Identity theft and fraud protection for your finances, personal info, and devices.
Why Do Scammers Send Fake Checks?
Scammers might send fake checks for many reasons, but it ultimately comes down to mercenary motives. As she sifted through her mail, a California woman came across an unexpected check for $1,900. The instructions were as plain as day — spend $1,000 on a work computer and transfer $900 via Zelle [*].
But the check was fake, and the bank later reversed the transaction. The woman was left disconsolate — and with a negative bank balance.
Despite the decline in the use of paper checks, there were still 14.5 billion check payments made in 2018 [*]. And there were nearly just as many opportunities for scammers to ensnare unsuspecting victims.
Fake checks can be difficult to distinguish from real ones. There are, however, specific signs to look out for that can help identify them.
What Are the Signs of Fake Check Scams?
Fake checks are common bank scams that may also employ advanced counterfeiting methods. With access to sophisticated printing technologies, scammers can create fraudulent checks that appear legitimate at first glance.
In some cases, scammers may create a brand-new check. In others, they might use a check template and fill in the relevant details. For instance, they might add account and routing numbers and a credit union or bank logo.
Another clever scheme known as “check washing” uses chemicals such as bleach, carpet cleaner, or nail polish remover to erase the ink on the check. Scammers then increase the amount payable by hundreds or thousands of dollars before cashing the check.
While there are many ways to fabricate a fake check, there are just as many warning signs of counterfeit checks.
- Irregular perforations
- Missing check numbers
- Incorrect routing codes
- Odd magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) lines
- Notations in the memo area
- Stains or discolorations on the check
- Other discrepancies
1. Irregular perforations (or micro-perforations)
Examine the sides of your check to see if there are any rough edges. Genuine checks are generally perforated and have at least one rough edge [*].
A lack of perforations and rough edges could indicate a fake. Scammers are increasingly using their own printers with MICR capability to produce their own checks. These checks may have micro-perforations that can be difficult to find.
2. Missing check numbers
In some cases, fraudulent checks might have irregularities in their check numbers. Ensure that your checks don’t have these problems:
- Not in sequential order. Check numbers can sometimes be missing, or they may not change from one check to the next. Other times, you might find that the check numbers are out of order. In this case, a newer check might have a lower check number than an older one. Always examine canceled checks out of sequence as well as duplicate check numbers.
- Odd placement on the check. If a check is legitimate, it should have a check number displayed in the top right-hand corner of the check. Watch for checks that have the number displayed elsewhere.
- Mismatched check numbers. If you see a check number on your check, compare it against the number in the MICR line. This line contains the account number, the routing number, and then the check number. If the MICR line doesn’t match the check number, the check is likely fake.
- The check number is low. While a low check number does not necessarily mean that a check is fraudulent, it indicates a new check-writing entity. 90% of bad checks are written from checking accounts less than one year old, so this could be a red flag [*]. Watch for check numbers in the low three digits for personal checks and in the low four digits for business checks.
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3. Incorrect routing code vs. the location of the bank
Fraudulent checks often display routing codes that don’t match the bank name shown on the check [*]. The routing number is the nine-digit number printed within the MICR line at the bottom of the check.
Try searching for the routing number from the MICR line on the Federal Reserve Bank Services website. If what you see there doesn’t match the name of the bank on the check, it may be a fake.
4. Odd magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) lines
The MICR line can sometimes have unusual characteristics. This is usually a sign of a fake check. Also, the numbers in the MICR line should be flat and not reflective. You might have a fake or cashier’s check if the numbers are shiny.
5. Notations in the memo area
The memo area should not contain words like “payroll” or “dividends.” If you are dealing with a legitimate financial institution, it has separate accounts for expense categories. Thus, genuine checks usually don’t carry notations such as these.
6. Stains or discolorations on the check
A common sign of a fake check is the presence of stains or discolorations. This might occur because a scammer altered the check or erased something.
- Printed on poor quality or slippery paper. Real checks are usually printed on thick, high-quality card stock. If your check feels thin or slippery, or the paper is otherwise of poor quality, you may have a fake.
- Check colors smear on rubbing. Legitimate checks should be neatly printed with no signs of rubbing or smearing. Try moistening your finger and lightly running it along the print on the check. If you find that the ink smears, you may have a fake [*].
7. Other discrepancies
Several other issues or discrepancies can occur with a check. Any of these might be an indication that you are dealing with a fake.
- No authorized signature. Each check should have an authorized signature. If a check is missing this, it may not be genuine.
- Words such as “Void” or “non-negotiable” appear on the check. Such notations indicate that the check is no longer valid or has certain limitations. The circumstances under which you encounter these checks determine whether or not they are fraudulent.
- Typed name and address of the drawee (instead of printed). The name and address of the check’s drawee should be typed. It should not be printed or contain spelling errors.
- Government checks in which the dollar box has a different print style. The typeface of numbers on corporate or government checks should match in both style and print. If they don’t match or there are other irregularities in printing, the amount of the check may have been inflated.
- Missing customer name and/or address. On a fraudulent check, you may find that the customer’s name and/or address is missing.
- Numerical and written check amounts don’t match. The numerical and written amounts on the check should always match. The person who wrote the check could have made an error, but this may sometimes indicate a fake check.
- Missing lender logo. Legitimate financial institutions print their logos on the front of the check. If you don’t see the logo of the bank that printed the check, it might be fake.
How To Protect Yourself From Bad Checks
Depositing a fake check is much like depositing any other check — at least in the beginning. First, the check will go through the check-clearing process, and you may receive provisional credit.
This can give you confidence in the check’s legitimacy, and you may even spend the money. This is one of the main reasons why fake checks scams work.
The bank will eventually discover that the check is fake; this can, however, take days or weeks. The transaction will then be reversed.
There may be fees or even legal consequences, depending on the situation. Before you initiate a money transfer, take these steps to protect yourself from bad checks.
Don’t send money to someone you don’t know
Never send money to someone you don’t know, whether via check or wire transfer. This money is often difficult to recover, and consumer protection agencies may not be able to help you once the transaction goes through.
Inspect the security features
Check manufacturers use security features that make checks difficult to copy. These can include watermarks, chemical voids, and high-resolution microprinting. They might also include security inks that react with eradication chemicals.
Wait for a check to be cleared before you release a sale item
A bank typically must make the first $225 of a deposit available either on the next business day or the day after [*]. The rest of the deposit should be available on the second business day.
You might initially see money from the check in your account, but this doesn’t mean the check is legitimate. The check must first go through a clearinghouse if it is from another bank — the drawing bank.
The deposit bank must receive both the check and funds from the drawing bank for the check to be cleared [*]. This process can take two weeks or longer, and only then can someone determine whether the check is valid.
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Call to verify the legitimacy of the check
Fake checks often accompany outlandish claims, like congratulating you for winning a sweepstakes — even though you don’t remember entering it. But you shouldn’t accept these winnings without verification.
One way to quickly verify the legitimacy of a check is by calling the issuing bank to verify the account. You can also call the issuer to verify that the check is real.
It’s best to look for the issuer's phone number online rather than relying on the contact information printed on the check.
Do not accept counter checks or overpayments
A common scam is for someone to purchase an item and send a check or cashier’s check for more than the sale price. Then, the scammers implore the seller to send them the difference by wiring funds or purchasing gift cards. But if the check bounces, you may not be able to get your money back.
- Look for checks that display signs of tampering. If a check has been altered in some way, this is a clear sign of check fraud. There are many ways checks can be altered, such as with the chemical alterations mentioned earlier. Report the incident within one year to increase the chances that the loss will be covered [*].
- Watch for post-dated checks in someone else’s name. Only accept a check that is written with today’s date. If a check is post-dated, it could be a fake. Also, do not accept a partial payment on a bad check.
- Be wary of checks from out-of-town banks. If you do business locally, look for checks that come from a bank in your city or town. Don’t accept checks from an out-of-town bank.
Reconcile your monthly statements
Monitor your bank accounts online every week or month. Look for transactions from cashed checks and watch for anything suspicious.
- Shred unused or old checks. It's always good practice to keep your checks safe. You can do this by properly storing or disposing canceled checks. If you have old or unused checks, consider shredding them. Do the same with paper bank statements, credit card offers, or any other mail that includes personal information.
- Report any missing checks from a new checkbook. Be equally careful with any new checks that you receive. When you order new checks, make sure they are all there and none are missing.
- Do not write checks payable to cash (or bearer). Never make a check payable to cash. If it is lost or stolen, anyone can easily cash the check. Also consider switching to electronic payment methods.
- Don’t endorse a check until you are ready to cash or deposit it. Otherwise, information on the check can be altered if it is lost or stolen
Avoid work-from-home scams
You might receive a check or money order in advance of doing work as a mystery shopper or account manager. Mystery shopping jobs are often scams, and you will likely end up losing money as a result. Tread lightly when dealing with work-from-home or secret shopper job ads.
Protect your mail
Mail theft is common in the United States. From March 2020 to February 2021, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) received 299,020 mail theft complaints [*]. Needless to say, if possible, avoid mailing checks.
- Secure a parcel locker or post office box. These are relatively inexpensive, and authorities say that theft from them is generally rare. You can also consider a parcel locker if you have a home-based business and often receive shipments of valuable goods.
- Collect your mail on time. Mail thieves may follow carriers on their routes, picking up mail a mere 15 minutes after delivery. If you can’t pick up your mail shortly after delivery, consider asking a neighbor to pick it up for you.
- Be careful with “blue box” use. Blue postal drop boxes are popular for their convenience but aren’t secure. If you have to mail a check, drop it in the mail slot in the post office lobby, or hand it to a post office employee.
- Use Informed Delivery through USPS. Expecting an important piece of mail? USPS has a free service called Informed Delivery, which allows you to see a preview of the mail you will soon receive [*]. This way, you know exactly when the mail will arrive, and you can be home to pick it up promptly.
Report Fake Checks and Related Scams Right Away
You are usually liable even if you unknowingly deposit a fake check. It is up to you to do your due diligence to ensure the check’s legitimacy. If you do fall victim to a scam, it may be difficult but not impossible to recover your money, depending on the circumstances.
- The first step is to report the suspected fraud to your bank. There is no guarantee the bank will be able to reverse the transaction. However, your chances are always better if you report fraud earlier in the process.
- After reporting the fraud to your bank, the next step is to contact the relevant authorities. You can report general scams to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
- You can also contact the Better Business Bureau (BBB). For internet-based scams, contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). For mail-based fraud, contact the USPIS.
- Lastly, you can contact the relevant authorities. This may include your local police department and your state’s attorney general.
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