Stop Writing Checks and Start Banking Online To Avoid Identity Theft

Published 8/7/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

Ask yourself this question - when was the last time you balanced your checkbook? Do you even know what balancing a���� checkbook entails? The fact of the matter is, writing checks and issuing payments in the form of paper checks is a steadily dying practice, thanks to the tremendous growth of the Internet and all of the new fangled technological advancements in the area of electronic and automated telephone banking (even phone banking is getting phased out in favor of the web). Much the same way the future of newspapers and the outlook of traditional forms of written news are being called into serious question, and much the same way they are being slowly rendered irrelevant by the overwhelming convenience and cost efficient benefits of the World Wide Web, so too will the practice of check writing and manually balancing accounts ultimately go the way of the dodo bird.

Personally, I can barely recall the last time I actually went through the hassle of balancing my checkbook manually. The tedious bean counting practice of manually comparing my own personal account records with the recordation information provided by monthly bank statements is simply not something I've readily adopted over the years. The last time was probably in high school when my mom sought to teach me about basic account management by forcing me to watch her go through the motion of recording transactions neatly on the gridded transaction register that comes with each set of checks. But other than that first initial lesson, I don't think I've ever done it in real practice. After all, I bank online almost exclusively, and other than the monthly rent checks I write, I seldom glance at my checkbooks anymore. In fact, I highly recommend readers do the same. We are entering the new technological age where efficiency, speed, and identity security are paramount concerns. Electronic banking and online bill pay offer the type of convenience and security benefits that paper checks and manual payment systems simply are unable to provide.

Write Personal Checks Sparingly To Minimize The Risks Of Becoming An Identity Theft Victim

If you asked me, checks are nothing but potential identity fraud cases waiting to happen. After all, you wouldn't go about your daily life randomly handing out slips of paper with your complete personal identification and financial information scrawled on them would you? But that's basically what you're doing when you open up your checkbook and issue a personal check. Personally, I write very few checks nowadays, and here's why. When you write a personal check at your local Safeway or CVS, or when you cut out a check to your local pizza delivery guy, you are opening up a tremendous security risk by leaving the check behind. On that check is your name, address, phone number, bank's name and address, bank account number, bank routing number, and even your actual handwritten signature. Oftentimes, as is the case at most supermarkets and department stores, cashiers even request additional identification from you and write the information directly on the face of the check. This additional ID request can include sensitive information such as your driver's license number, your social security number, and even your birth date.

While many banks eventually mail the used canceled check back to you, not all banks do. Some merely scan the checks and upload the displays onto your online account for you to see. It's almost impossible to know how many sets of eyes have viewed the check and how many scans or copies were made. What's exceedingly apparent is that anyone who sees the front of your personal check has sufficient information to open fraudulent bank and credit accounts in your name. One very unknown fact about checks is that anyone can take an account number and routing number off the bottom of a personal check and create new fake checks with them. The name displayed on the check doesn't even have to match the actual customer name on the underlying bank account in question. Oftentimes, retailers and banks simply don't check to see if the numbers on the check match up with the right names for that account.

While I personally abhor writing checks, viewing the practice as not only archaic but outdated, there are still limited circumstances when I simply can't get around it. Because I lease my current condo apartment from an ordinary pair of mom and pop landlords, they're not properly equipped to handle credit card payments. As such, each month I'm obligated to mail a personal check out to them to cover my monthly rent. Sometimes, you have few alternatives and must write out checks, and that's acceptable in limited circumstances like paying your rent, your mortgage, or paying your monthly credit card bill. But if some traveling salesman or pizza delivery guy comes to your door, don't write him a check, because all you're doing is giving him a potential tool (a blank check if you will) for trouble. Even if it's the seemingly innocent girl scouts selling cookies at your door, I recommend paying by cash instead of paying by check so long as the sum is not too prohibitive. Avoid check payments if you can unless you've already established a history or measure of trust with the person or company.

Online Banking Is Truly A Much More Efficient Way To Balance Your Checkbook and Track Your Account Finances

The actual practice of balancing your checkbook is a method to verify and confirm that your own personal records accurately match your monthly bank statement transactions. The purpose is to catch mistakes and unauthorized transactions as they happen. While most bank transactions are processed and recorded accurately, sometimes mistakes occur. Usually, bank customers have anywhere from 30-60 days to bring the accounting error or unauthorized transaction details to the attention of their bank. Failure to notify the bank in time about any account discrepancies may result in forfeiture of the bank's liability to pay you money to make up for the difference. That's why it's generally important to balance your checkbook, or reconcile your account balances as accountants like to put it. The best way to do that is to get in the habit of banking online, particularly with the aid of Internet banking aggregators. Online banking not only affords you accurate and real-time updates of your bank accounts on demand, it also provides a variety of account history information to help you budget your spending.

By giving you instant access to your account balances at all times, online banking���� helps you plan accordingly. Failure to know how much money you have in your checking or savings account on a regular basis may lead you to blindly spend more money than you have, through ATM withdrawals, excess check writing, and debit card purchases, causing you to incur unnecessary bank fees and charges. Protecting yourself from overdraft and bounced check fees is a must when it comes to sound financial planning.

There are a variety of bounced check and insufficient fund fees that banks and merchants levy when there isn't enough money in your bank account to cover your authorized checks. A single bounced check can easily cause $50 or more as not only the bank will charge you a $20-30 processing fee, but the merchant who received the paper check from you is likely to charge you an additional $20-30 merchant fee as well for passing a non sufficient fund check. Without knowledge and daily tracking of your checking account balance, insufficient fund and late payment fees can quickly add up and spiral out of control. For the overdraft prone, many banks currently offer overdraft protection to ensure that your checks never bounce and that all ATM and debit transactions still go through. While you'll still have to pay the bank's overdraft or bounced check fee, at least with overdraft protection you can avoid having to pay the merchant's return check cost, and stay in good standing with the payee and the people you do business with.

Another service many banks now offer is the option for customers to link their checking accounts with a savings account. In the event the customer accidentally exceeds his or her available checking account balance, funds from the linked savings account will automatically be used to satisfy the shortfall. While there is usually a small transaction fee for this automatic coverage via the savings account, the charge (around $5-10) is often substantially less than having to pay a non sufficient fund charge to the bank and an additional bounced check fee to the merchant.

While some banks also allow checking accounts to be linked up to credit cards as a backup source of funds in the event of a cash shortfall, I don't recommend this option. In the event of insufficient checking account funds, the overdraft becomes a cash advance on your credit card. Oftentimes the cash advance fee is levied immediately and cash advance interest charges start accruing immediately. The better option is to utilize the linked savings account alternative, mentioned above.

View Your Online Bank Accounts Daily and Mentally Keep Track Of Your Balances Throughout The Day As You Spend Money

When I speak of balancing my own checkbook, I'm not actually talking about sitting down with wads of purchase receipts and manually matching handwritten checkbook transactions to information found on my monthly bank statements. That would be much too unwieldy and time consuming of a regular task to undertake. In this day and age, between writing checks, swiping credit and debit cards, and using online bill pay, it's simply too much work and too cumbersome to carry around a paper register and write down every single transaction. However, that doesn't mean I am not tracking my finances and transactions at all times - I'm simply using a broad mental tracking method to keep tabs on my check, debit, and credit expenditures as opposed to using a manual recordation approach.

The whole point of keeping those accounts balanced is primary to catch those rare but pesky bank recordation mistakes and to ensure that you have even funds in your actively used checking accounts at all times to handle payment requests. For those who want to adopt the same mental tracking method that I use, it's actually quite simple - all you have to do is get in the habit of viewing your online account balances on a regular basis. Ideally, you'll want to check your bank account balances every single day. There's nothing particularly obsessive or compulsive about that. After all for example, if you're looking to lose weight or count your calories, you would want to step on that bathroom scale regularly to track your progress. In the same way, you want to know where your bank account balances stand at all times. You want to always have a mental figure for the day and make sure you spend well below that amount. If you are new to the practice of mental tracking, you may want to keep a small transaction log (like the ones used for checkbooks) on your person until you get the hang of it. But ultimately, the goal is to rely on mental tracking instead of wasting time and effort writing down every single day to day transaction.

Since all of my credit card, checking, CD, and online high yield savings accounts are linked together on the web and enabled to make automatic monthly debit payments without my continuous oversight, I always make sure I have sufficient funds in my checking account to satisfy all upcoming bill pays. For those who utilize automatic debit payments to handle recurring bills as I do, It's important to establish a sufficient monetary cushion in your checking account to handle unexpected ATM withdraws and debit card uses to avoid having to pay insufficient fund charges or late fees.

Some banks like Bank of America offer special enrollment programs to help customers better track their spending by rounding up purchase amounts to the nearest dollar. With the Bank of America Keep The Change program, each time you use your Bank of America check card (essentially a debit card) to buy something, the purchase amount is rounded up to the nearest dollar denomination and the difference is automatically deposited into a linked savings account. Not does only does the program greatly promote savings, it makes it a lot easier to mentally keep track of daily purchase transactions as you don't have to contend with adding up cents.

Using Credit Cards Is Actually A Smarter Way To Manage Your Money Than Using Checks or Debit Cards

The practice of using bank debit cards to manage money is a growing trend as society steadily moves away from cash and check transactions. However, the reality is that most people don't manage their debit card spending very well and most don't balance their debit transactions daily, either in written form or mentally, like I do. Personally I'm not a big fan of using debit cards. In my opinion, debit cards are simply check writing in glorified plastic form, minus some of the potential identity theft issues discussed earlier. While it's substantially safer and more secure than writing paper checks, debit cards still come with the same problems inherent in check writing - payment amounts are withdrawn from your checking account immediately and thus you have to make sure you stay within your checking account limit at all times or face having to pay over the limit fees.

The better solution is to go with a payment mechanism that does not rely on immediate account debits - like credit cards. Due to grace periods inherent with credit cards, compared to debit and check payments, there is less worry when it comes to insufficient fund requirements and bounced payment requests. Credit cards also offer substantially stronger fraud protections against unauthorized transactions and charge mistakes. Oftentimes a quick phone call or an explanation letter is enough to get unauthorized credit card charges removed from your bill, and the best part is that you don't lose any money while the billing dispute is going on.

Ideally, credit card usage usage is the way to go in an otherwise perfect world. In a perfect world, all cardholders would be responsible credit users with the self control to not spend wildly beyond their means, and would be able to always make sure they have enough money to pay off their credit card balances every month. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world we live in and not everyone is qualified to use credit cards as their primary method to pay for things.

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8 Responses to “Stop Writing Checks and Start Banking Online To Avoid Identity Theft” 

  1. SanDance says:

    Of course, this blog entry is just one person's opinion and not expert financial advice. Even though I agree with this view and it works for me, it does not mean I would recommend it for everyone. Balancing a checkbook or account register is a good and healthy financial practice that helps to find errors (Banks DO make mistakes) and fraud while avoiding unnecessary fees (bounced checks from BillPay, Insufficient funds, Over Credit Limit,...) . The suggestion to "View Your Online Bank Accounts Daily and Mentally Keep Track Of Your Balances Throughout The Day As You Spend Money" is simply not a viable option for some people. Just because your balance shows $X.XX does not necessarily mean you have that much to spend (because you forgot to record that Online Bill payment in your register that has not cleared yet, etc..)

  2. Idenity Theft says:

    Handing out your check is a little like handing out your credit card I guess. I know people (like waiters) can steal and use your credit card number and I guess people can do bad things with your checking account as well. Most of my payments are by automatice withdrawl and I suspect most other people's are as well.

  3. Mimoji says:

    Best way to avoid identity theft? Pay in cash!

  4. Richard @ Student Scrooge says:

    SanDance makes a good point about viewing online balances not being a perfect solution -- for one thing, stray checks can still mess with your available balance, and despite my best efforts I have occasionally run into some funny accounting on the part of banks in terms of when they clear funds and what not. At the same time, you're right that balancing a check book really doesn't work well, either, these days -- especially for people who use debit cards instead of credit cards, it can get near impossible to accurately balance a physical check book.

    I really like your argument, however, as to why people should use credit cards, and I agree whole heartily. I get nervous when *anything* pulls from my checking account, and so I prefer to charge everything to a credit card, and then initiate a one-time payment to pay the credit card bill. Furthermore, with a credit card I have a chance to avoid fraudulent or incorrect charges without temporarily losing money; with debit cards, its different. So these days, I only use checks as a last resort, for mainly the reasons you've mentioned.

  5. Joe Pitts says:

    I agree those that say not to use debit cards simply because in the event of theft of wallet or purse, the thief can fill their gas tank (swipe card) get groceries through self checkout, (wal-mart, kroger) and lots of other purchases without providing ID that they own the card. By the time you are able to call and cancel the card, all that money has been "debited" from your checking account, which is most likely your main living expenses account. It can take awhile to recover fraudulant charges from a debit account.

    My wife and I only carry 2 credit cards, one discover for everyday purchases (1% cashback or more) and one BP gas card (5% back on gas) for gas purchases only. If someone steals these cards and use them, they are in affect "robbing" the credit card companies since it is their money and not my checking account money. I would recommend others doing the same. jp

  6. Topwaystosave says:

    Writing checks is definitely a dying act. I was cleaning earlier today and found a second box of checks I ordered years ago. I doubt I'll ever use them all now. I only write 1 or two a month now and that's about it. If my landlord had direct deposit I would do that with her too.

  7. Mike says:

    I think people can do bad things with your checking account as good.
    Most of my payments are by automatic withdrawal.

  8. Raymond says:

    For everyone who's trying to move away from check writing and the old banking practices of yesteryear, there is an interesting emerging trend in the works towards high yield online reward checking accounts. Many of these online banks offer much higher interest rates for online checking accounts because of their lower maintenance fees compared to traditional brick and mortar banks which have substantially higher overhead expenses to maintain.

    With these online reward checking accounts, oftentimes, even out of network ATM fees are reimbursed - adding to their growing list of convenience benefits. A few are even starting to offer these nifty little devices to enable checking customers to make deposits from the comforts of their own home. Simply by swiping deposit paper checks into these little scanning devices, digital copies of the checks can be made and funds can be easily deposited into baccank ounts without the need to physically visit a bank branch.

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