It’s possible to verify a check before you try to deposit it at your bank, and it’s wise to do so with any checks you have doubts about—especially large ones. You'll want to make sure a check is valid and the writer has sufficient funds available before you deposit it, or else it can bounce. If that happens, you’ll pay fees to your bank—and likely won't get the money you're owed.
What to Watch For
You may never know for certain if a check is good, but you can gather some good information to help you decide what to do with that check.
There are a few items you can look into:
- Where/who did the check come from?
- Does the checking account have funds available?
- Does the check show signs of being a fake document?
- Does the person who gave it to you make a habit of bouncing checks?
Consider Where the Check Came From
Before verifying anything else, you can learn a lot by examining where the check came from and who gave it to you. If the person contacted you out of the blue to send you a check then there's a good chance they're a scammer, and the check is fake.
If someone tells you that you won a prize, lottery, or sweepstakes, and that they're going to send you a check, then that's a huge red flag. In addition, if you had to pay money in order to receive the check, or if the person sending it to you asks you to send part of it back to them, then it's a sure sign of a scam.
How to Verify Funds
If you’re holding onto a check that’s suspect, you can try to verify funds in the account. To do so, contact the bank that the check is drawn on and ask to verify funds. Some banks, in the interest of privacy, will only tell you whether or not the account is valid, or they will not provide any information at all.
Others may be able to tell you if there is currently enough money in the account to cover the check. Of course, that information is only a snapshot of what’s available in the account at the moment you check. The account holder could withdraw funds, or other charges could hit the account after you hang up. If you’re able to verify funds and you know that the check is good, then deposit the check immediately.
If you can’t verify funds (or if you want to be especially cautious), take the check to a branch of the bank that the funds are drawn on. You might be able to cash the check there instantly without depositing it—which eliminates the chance of the check bouncing. Some banks may charge a fee for this, and not all banks do it. You may also be able to check a cash at a retailer or check-cashing store for a fee (and those companies are usually able to verify checks as well).
How to Spot a Fake Check
Even if the account has funds available, it’s possible that you’ve been paid with a fake check. With today’s technology, it’s easy to copy a real check and print a genuine-looking (but fake) check. If you deposit a fake check, it will be returned due to fraud. But that can sometimes take weeks to discover, and if you've already spent the money then you'll owe it back to the bank.
Inspect every check you receive:
- Make sure the check is issued by a legitimate bank and doesn't have a fake bank name. If the check includes the bank's number and address, then make sure it is correct.
- Look for check security features, such as microprinting on the signature line, a security screen on the back of the check, and the words “original document” on the back of the check.
- Check the amount of the check, because scammers often write them for more than the original amount that was intended.
- Make sure there aren't any smudges or discoloration, which can indicate that the check was altered.
If you have any doubts, then don’t accept the payment.
Sophisticated con artists can always buy genuine check stock (the security paper that checks are printed on) and use somebody else’s account number.
For Businesses: A Database of Bad Checks
If you run a business, you might accept checks and regularly have to wonder if those checks are any good. Verifying funds can be time-consuming, and it might not be possible to do so while customers are waiting in line.
The best way to protect yourself when bad checks are common (or just too expensive) is to use a check verification service. Those services help you identify bad checks by checking several databases before you accept the check as payment (you run the check through a check reader or punch in the routing and account number online).
Check verification services are only available to merchants and businesses.
Check verification services have lists of people who routinely bounce checks, and they can also (sometimes) tell if an account has been closed. For an extra fee, some services even guarantee the payment: If the check bounces they’ll pay you so you don’t have to eat the loss. If that’s more than you need, a good set of rules can help you and your staff avoid taking bad checks.
Just in Case
Be prepared by getting contact information from everybody who pays by check. Verify that you have a current phone number and address, and check identification to be sure that everything matches.
Check local laws to find out what recourse you have when checks bounce. If you run a business, it may be worth posting a notice that informs customers of actions you intend to take when checks are returned.