Is It Safe to Email Voided Checks? Keep your Account Secure

Password typed over the masked face of thief on computer monitor
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A reader wrote in with a question that brings up several issues related to making a payment out of your checking account:

  1. How to safely send account information online
  2. How to pay from a checking account electronically

There are several ways to make a payment, and we’ll discuss the alternatives after the reader’s question.

“We are renting a condo in Hawaii and to avoid the high processing fee using our credit card to pay for the condo, the agent also provided ACH as an option.

But in order to do this, we need to email her a voided check. Is that a bad idea? It doesn't feel right, but I can't find any information online that suggests one way or another…

Any info you would provide would be super. Thanks!”

Emailing Check Images

You’re right to hesitate: your checks show your bank routing and account number (not to mention your name and address), and that information can be used by identity thieves to drain your checking account. Even if you void the check the numbers will be visible, and that image will exist somewhere for many months or years to come.

In most cases, this isn’t a problem – your agent probably isn’t going to steal from your account, and that image might be safely deleted forever after it gets used. But the risk of fraud is significant: you could potentially lose money if it’s stolen from your account (acting fast helps you to limit your losses), and the domino effect can make life difficult:

  • You might end up bouncing other checks or missing payments that don’t go through because there’s not enough money in your account
  • You’ll have to spend time and energy cleaning up the mess

How to Pay from your Checking Account (Electronically)

Instead of just emailing the check in plain sight, use a more secure method to pay.

Encrypted PDF: one way to solve the problem is to send the check image as an encrypted PDF. The message recipient will need to use a password to view the check image, but anybody else who “happens across” the message will only see garbled data. Be sure to send the password securely – don’t email it unless you use different email addresses.

It’s best to call the recipient and deliver the password verbally, but you could also send the password as a text message.

Creating an encrypted PDF is easy if you’ve got the right software. This page explains the process using Microsoft and Adobe software.

Password protected file: it’s possible to add a password to many different types of files. If you can’t create an encrypted PDF, try putting the image of your check into one of those files and adding password protection. Again, the idea is to add a speedbump that trips up automated scripts and encourages thieves to move on.

Good old-fashioned fax: if you’re having a hard time securing a file for email, ask about faxing the check image instead. Most places will accommodate your request, and faxing is more secure than emailing. Fax data doesn’t sit around forever (at least not in the same way computer files do), and stealing information from a fax transmission is more cumbersome than forwarding an email.

Snail mail: if there’s no rush, ask about mailing the check. Of course, the check could get lost and the information could be used by thieves, but the majority of letters make it to their destination safely.

Electronic payments from checking: instead of emailing a check, see if you can essentially send an email that pays from your checking account.

Several online services and apps let you do this for free, or you can use a credit card if you want extra protection.

If you pay with a credit card, it'll be easy to reverse the charges if errors or unauthorized charges appear, although you may have to pay a little extra. You could also pay with PayPal or a similar service that allows you to dispute charges. Square Cash is a free service for spending from your checking account by simply sending an email (after setting up your debit card).

For more suggestions, see How to Send Money Online.

All of the electronic methods above keep your bank account and credit card numbers secret – the payment provider sees those numbers, but not everybody else you pay. This limits the number of individuals that can steal (or lose) that sensitive information.

There is always a tradeoff between security and ease of use, and you can never achieve 100% security (if somebody really wants your account number, there’s probably a way to get it).

However, if you can make things difficult for thieves, most of them will move on to easier targets. Here are some ideas on how to do that.

Are Checks Risky?

Any time you hand a check to somebody, they see what your account number is, along with your bank’s routing numbers. Most of the time, that’s not a problem – they simply want to deposit the check and get only what you intended to pay them. But thieves can copy that information and print fake checks that draw from your account (or use it to draw from your account electronically). As you might imagine, they’ll go on quite a shopping spree when you’re the one paying the bills.

You are often protected from this type of fraud, as long as you keep an eye on your accounts and notify your bank quickly, but you can get stuck with the charges in some cases.

You might wonder: if you expose your account information every time you write a check, why is it any worse to email an image of your check? It’s true that both activities carry risk – even if you hand a check to a trusted friend or legitimate business, that check could get lost or stolen. But sending an electronic copy is riskier.

When there’s a paper check involved, the only way to use the information is to physically get ahold of the check (or somehow get a copy of the check). In most situations, the check is destroyed soon after it is uploaded into a secure system. It might be photographed or turned into an electronic image, but those copies are generally safe.

Email is not a secure system. When you send a message, it moves through numerous computers, some of which might have malicious software installed. What’s more, you don’t know how careful your recipient is with his email account – is his computer unlocked with the email application open when he goes out to lunch? Even if the message gets deleted promptly, an archived copy of that message might be kept (in a relatively unsafe place) for a long time.

No matter how you use your accounts, it’s always a good idea to monitor your bank accounts to limit your risk. The easiest way to do that is to set up basic alerts when money leaves your account.