Be Safe when Sending Checks through the Mail

How to Protect Your Account (Or Pay Electronically)

Envelopes with back lighting, showing contents
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Checks aren’t a thing of the past — yet. There are still situations when a paper check is a perfectly reasonable way to pay. Checks are inexpensive to process for buyers and sellers, and they get the job done, even in today’s high-tech world. But checks need to travel to the payee. So, how safe is it to mail a check, and what can you do to keep your money from ending up in the wrong hands?

Regular mail is usually fine, and there are a few ways to increase the security of your payments:

  1. Track the check so you know if and when it arrives.
  2. Never mail a check payable to cash.
  3. Restrict the check and make it hard to tell that there’s a check in the envelope.
  4. Consider alternative forms of payment, such as a wire transfer or other electronic payment.
  5. To prevent anybody from seeing your bank account and routing numbers, pay with your bank’s online bill payment service or send a money order.

We’ll get into more detail below.

Regular Mail?

Mailing a check in the United States via regular mail is generally very safe. Millions of checks go through the mail every day – including many of the payments made through online bill payment services (banks sometimes make those payments electronically, but they often just print a check and drop it in the mail).

In the Good Old Days, before electronic payments were commonplace, checks were the norm. For decades, businesses and governments sent checks via regular mail, and those checks almost always made it to their intended destination.

Imagine how many millions of paychecks, tax payments, Social Security benefits, and other payments have successfully been made by check.

Still, it can be intimidating to drop an important check in the mail – especially a large check. There’s nothing wrong with taking steps to improve security and avoid problems.

Tips: How to Mail a Check Safely

Name a payee: Make sure to write a specific name (of a person or business) on the line that says “Pay to the order of.” This makes it harder for anybody else to get the money.

Do not send checks payable to Cash through the mail – that’s just as risky as sending cash.

Deliver to a safe place: Don’t just leave the letter with outgoing mail on your front porch or building entryway. The best approach is to drop the letter off at the post office or hand it to a uniformed mail carrier.

Blue USPS collection boxes might be slightly less safe, but you can minimize problems by dropping your letter off before the last daily collection (read the label near the mailbox door for pickup times). As long as the check doesn’t sit out overnight or over the weekend, it’ll almost certainly make it onto a mail truck.

Track the package: If you're concerned about regular mail, you can always use certified mail or similar tracking services available from the US Post Office.

FedEx and UPS offer similar security, but those services cost more. Remember that if you use anything besides regular mail, you might make things more difficult for your recipient – they might have to be present and sign for delivery, or they might have to make a trip to the Post Office or delivery center to accept the item.

Restrict the check: If you want to require that the check is deposited to a bank account, write “For deposit only to account of payee” in the endorsement area on the back of the check. This restriction makes it harder for anybody to cash the check without leaving a paper trail. If the check is stolen from the mail, the “recipient” can’t sign it over to somebody else or cash it without leaving a record of the bank account that was used (they shouldn’t be able to cash it at your bank or at a check cashing store at all). This method is not 100 percent foolproof, but it improves your chances.

Hide the check: If you like, you can try to make your letter look like a plain-old boring letter instead of something containing a large check. It’s probably unnecessary because checks are commonly mailed, but reducing temptation may help.

To disguise your check, fold a thick piece of paper around the check – make sure you use enough postage to cover any extra weight.

Double check the address: It might seem silly, but it’s easy to stick a check into the wrong envelope or send it to the wrong place. Take five seconds to save yourself several weeks of stress, and make sure your check is headed to the right destination.

If Something Happens

So, what happens if you mail a check and it gets stolen?

For starters, the thief will have to forge the payee’s signature or alter the check (with modern checks, it’s difficult to get away with alterations). Among other things, that means he’ll commit fraud. Then, he’ll have to convince a bank or check cashing store to accept the fake endorsement (which is especially difficult without showing ID and revealing his identity). If you use the suggestions above, you’ll make it especially difficult for the thief. Also, there’s a better chance that you’ll have a bank account number tied to the thief, which will help investigators.

Assuming a thief is successful in getting cash, your check will have been used fraudulently. You should then contact your bank and law enforcement officials. State laws generally protect you from loss, but it’s important to follow the specific steps required in each state. The bank or check cashing store that cashed the check should be liable for any loss.

All of the information above assumes that the check is deposited or cashed in the United States. US banks have extremely strict rules on identifying customers, but other nations have different rules.

Lost a check? If a check disappears, you can request a stop payment at your bank. Your bank will flag the check and (hopefully) prevent the check from being paid from your account. There is a modest fee for this service, and there are limits to how effective it is – but it’s an added layer of security.

You can also set up alerts (such as automated email or text alerts) from your bank so that you know when the check is deposited. Moving quickly will help you and your bank track down any problems.

Alternatives to Mailing a Check

If your payment is really important (or really large), see if there’s another way to pay. A wire transfer will get funds to a specific account quickly. If that’s overkill, there are numerous ways to send money online for a modest fee (or for free), including Venmo, PayPal, Square Cash, and others. A credit card might even get the job done and provide consumer protection benefits – just be sure to pay it off completely before your next monthly statement.