Can I Verify Funds on a Money Order?

Avoid Money Order Scams

Man handing cash to a thief in disguise
Giving money to somebody after they pay with a money order? It's often a scam. Alberto Ruggieri / Getty Images

Getting paid with a money order is similar to getting paid with a check: You don’t get cash, but you can deposit or cash the item at your bank. Assuming the payment is legitimate, you'll eventually have money to spend.

So how can you tell if a money order is real or fake? There are three ways to make sure you don’t get ripped off:

  1. Verify that the money order is legitimate with the money order issuer.
  1. Look for physical clues that you’re holding a fake.
  2. Notice behavioral clues from the person that paid you.

If you still have any doubts, be cautious about depositing the money order and spending the money. Talk with a teller or manager at your bank and let them know what your concerns are. Your bank's funds availability policy may automatically let you spend that money, which leads you to believe that the payment cleared. But when your bank discovers it was a fake, you’ll have to replace those funds (which you might have spent several weeks ago).

Depositing bad money orders can result in you losing money (or merchandise), paying fees to your bank, and even facing legal troubles.

Verify Funds on a Money Order

Just like with checks, you can attempt to call the issuer and find out if a money order is good (and if the amount is correct). This won’t give you 100% certainty, but it will help you quickly weed out the lazy or sloppy scammers.

How to verify: Call the issuer at a number you know is legitimate (from the list below or a visit to the issuer’s website). Don’t just call the number printed on the money order – if it’s a fake, you can be sure that the number goes to a thief who will tell you whatever you want to hear. Provide the money order number, the date issued, and the amount of the money order, and ask for any available details.

No guarantees: Trying to verify a money order is often frustrating. In most cases, money order issuers will only tell you if there is a known problem with the money order in question. But a thief can give you the same money order he gave to 100 different people, and it’ll take some time for that item to show up in the system. What’s more, a thief can buy a legitimate money order for $1 and then change the amount to a higher number – that’s why it’s important to verify the amount and look for physical changes on the money order.

Who to contact: Call the organization that issued the money order. In some cases, that's a bank or credit union. If it's not clear where the money order came from, you can call a number on the money order just to ask for that information — and then verify the phone number online or call back using a number you find yourself. Grocery stores and convenience stores often use money orders issued by Western Union or Moneygram. Contact numbers:

  • Western Union: 1-800-999-9660
  • Moneygram: 1-800-MoneyGram
  • U.S. Postal Service Money Order Verification System at 866-459-7822

The safest option is cash: The best way to make sure you don’t get ripped off is to cash a money order directly with the issuer.

To do this, take it to the issuer and not your bank. For example, if it’s a USPS money order, take it to a post office that handles money orders. This can be a challenge: Post offices might not have sufficient cash on hand, and some stores that sell MoneyGram and Western Union money orders will only cash money orders sold by their chain (for example, Walmart might only cash money orders bought at a Walmart location).

Physical Clues

Sometimes you can tell that a money order is fake just by looking at it. Most money orders have security features like watermarks, microprint, and special ink that will change colors if anybody tries to change the amount of the money order. Look for a dark strip across the top of Western Union and MoneyGram money orders that describes the security features.

As a precaution, check the amount.

If a money order is for more than $1,000 (or $700 for an international USPS money order), you’ve probably got a fake. The amount should be printed in numbers and written out in words.

  • USPS money orders have a watermark of Benjamin Franklin that can be seen when you hold it up to a light and a thin line running from top to bottom with “USPS” printed in small letters.
  • MoneyGram money orders have a watermark that can be seen when you hold it up to a light and a heat-sensitive logo (or “stop sign”) that changes color when you hold your finger over it.
  • Western Union uses a watermark and ink that will run if the document is altered.

Behavioral Clues

If you’re worried about a money order, there’s probably a good reason. Trust your gut and hesitate before sending money (especially by wire transfer or using a Western Union transfer). Money orders are often used in scams for online purchases, and they fit nicely with the classic cashier’s check scam.

Think back to how and why you got the money order, and how the interaction has gone.

Serious buyer: If you’re selling something, does the buyer seem like a serious buyer who is informed about what he’s purchasing (or is he just eager to send you money)?

Only money orders: Have you asked for different forms of payment and gotten a (flimsy) list of reasons why a money order is the only option? Note that you can also get ripped off with popular electronic payment tools as well.

Overpayment: Did somebody send you more money than you asked for (and they want you to send the excess back by wire or Western Union)? It’s a scam.

High pressure: Everybody wants their merchandise (or tickets, or whatever) quickly – that’s not unusual. But if you feel especially pressured to send something when you’re not sure the payment is good, it could be a sign that somebody's trying to slip one past you.