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Just how safe are banking checks?

Allie Johnson

April 16, 2014

Since I started using online banking several years ago, I have barely used my checkbook Lately, I’ve been wondering: Is it even safe to write checks?

The question came up a few weeks ago when I called a lawn service I’d never used before. Our lawn mower broke down just as my husband was about to cut our overgrown lawn, and a friend was arriving from out of state that day. My friend had never seen our house, and I wanted it to look nice.

The lawn service I chose took cash or check. I had work deadlines to meet before my friend arrived, and there was no time to run to the ATM for cash. So, I reluctantly pulled out my dusty checkbook.

As I handed over the check, with my full name, address and bank account number on it, I wondered how big a risk I was taking.

Personal finance blog FiveCentNickel raises the same questions. After all, FiveCentNickel points out, the information that sometimes gets compromised when retailers have data breaches is often similar to what’s printed right on your checks.

FiveCentNickel recommends avoiding checks for certain types of transactions, such as eBay purchases, paying a random guy to mow your lawn (in my case, it was a company with the business name emblazoned on the side of the truck, but still) and even pizza delivery.

I’ll add one more: Craigslist purchases. Cash works out better for both parties, and most sellers don’t even take checks. (But, I recently sold an antique table for $30, and the woman who bought it was so sweet that when she pulled out a check and started painstakingly writing it out, I didn’t want to tell her no. I did wonder at her trust at handing over her personal information to a total stranger.)

Blogger Lainie Petersen at MoneyCrashers.com argues you can find yourself in situations when a paper check is the best choice: some companies don’t take debit or credit cards, while others charge you a fee to swipe plastic. For example, we’re getting the exterior of our house painted soon, and the painter charges a 3 percent fee for a credit card transaction. (It’s a fee he has to pay, so he passes it along.) The job is too expensive for us to safely use cash, so we’ll probably write a check.

So, how do you use a check and keep yourself safe from fraud? Personal finance experts offer several recommendations, including:

  • Use checks only when you have a good reason, MoneyCrashers.com recommends.
  • Don’t write additional identifying information — such as your driver’s license number — on the front of your check, MoneyCrashers.com says. According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, 29 states either use a driver’s Social Security number as the driver’s license number, or show it on the face of the license — a scary thought from an ID theft perspective.
  • Write checks only to established, legitimate businesses, MoneyCrashers.com recommends. (While this is no guarantee of security, since many employees might get a chance to glance at your check, it’s better than writing them to just anyone.)
  • Stick with cash for small purchases, recommends John Marklin, owner of Marklin Financial Services.
  • Carefully monitor your checking account online.

If you don’t feel comfortable writing a check, and plastic isn’t a choice, what are your options? As FiveCentNickel points out, you can always use a money order. Or, you can use a cashier’s check. MyBankTracker.com explains the differences between the two.

If we choose not to write a check to our house painter, a money order could be an option. I’ve never used a money order, but this might be a good time to try.