Here’s What Happens When You Have a Check Stolen

Key points

  • Check theft and fraud is far from a thing of the past, even as checks themselves are used less and less often.
  • If you lose a check, thieves get access to your personal information in addition to your money.
  • Consider switching to a more secure payment method — or at least taking checks directly to the post office if you have to mail them.

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Paper checks are going the way of the dodo, but that doesn’t mean you might not still have the occasion to use one to pay for something. I still have some, and most recently used one to pay for my city’s on-street parking permit. In this instance, I wasn’t worried about the possibility of check fraud or loss, however, as I had to visit the parking bureau office and drop off the check in person. If I was mailing it, I might have been a bit more concerned, as you’ll understand if you read on.

Checks are far from being the most secure way to make purchases these days, and that potential for theft and subsequent fraud is one of the reasons why you might think twice about paying this way. Nevertheless, if you do still use regular checks, it pays to take some care when you do. Why is that? Because having a check stolen is bad news all around.

When a check goes missing

It’s surprisingly easy for thieves to take your checks. If you leave outgoing mail in an unlocked mailbox at home, waiting on the mail carrier, thieves might beat them to it. Georgia State University’s Evidence-Based Cybersecurity Research Group (EBCS) has been tracking check fraud, noting an average of 1,325 stolen checks being sold on the internet every week of October 2021. Criminals involved in this enterprise have even been able to purchase stolen USPS blue mailbox keys (or copies of them) and then swipe piles of mail from the boxes, hoping to find envelopes containing personal checks.

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They can then wash the checks to remove the intended recipient’s name and payment amount, and then fill in whatever they want — usually a higher dollar figure than the check was originally written for. When that check is cashed or deposited, the money comes out of your checking account, and you’re left wondering what happened.

Another thing to remember about checks as a payment method is that unlike a credit card, they have a lot more information about you on them. Not only can a thief gain access to your bank account and routing number, but your name and address are on your checks. EBCS also believes criminals are using stolen checks to steal victims’ identities and use names and addresses to create fake documents and identification, such as passports. If a thief steals your identity, they can open credit cards and take out loans in your name. Plus, having your name and location out there and accessible to criminals is hardly a comforting idea.

How can you protect yourself?

Check theft is a crime that has the potential to become extinct as more and more people stop using checks. A survey by GoBankingRates from earlier this year found that 45% of Americans didn’t use checks at all last year. But, like me, you might still have to write the occasional check. Here are a few things to be mindful of.

Be careful about mailing (and writing) checks

When you do, it’s best to drop it off in person or mail it directly from the post office, rather than leaving it in your mailbox at home, or dropping it in the blue mailbox in your neighborhood. If you’re writing checks, black gel ink is the best kind to foil potential check washers.

Watch your bank accounts

If you pay for something with a check, keep a careful eye on your bank account until the money is taken out — and if the amount is different from what you wrote the check for, get in touch with your bank to address the fraud. It’s a great idea to stay on top of your bank account balance at all times anyway, perhaps checking in a few times a week. This can also help you avoid accidentally overdrafting your bank account or bouncing a check.

While you’re at it, opt-in for fraud and low-balance alerts for your account in the form of text messages or emails, and don’t forget to get your bank’s mobile app to make your financial life so much easier.

Consider switching to more secure payment methods

Finally, consider using payment methods other than writing paper checks yourself. You have so many options. Many utility companies offer online bill pay through bank transfers, or they accept credit and debit cards (watch out for fees to pay with plastic, though). You can also have your bank send checks on your behalf for bill payments.

If you mail checks to relatives for special occasions, consider sending the cash through a payment app instead. These are very easy to use. If these relatives are teens and young adults, chances are they will find a payment app transfer a much more convenient way to receive a gift from you, their favorite family member.

If you’ve been using checks for decades, I understand your reluctance to switch to a new way to pay. But you can still use paper checks — it just pays to keep on top of your account balance and be wary of where you mail checks from.

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