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Still Writing Checks? Watch Out.

Contributed by mm | August 1, 2004 7:13 PM PST

The Christian Science Monitor detailed risks associated with writing a check -- scammers can get the necessary information to tap into your checking account, and with the prolification of electronic-based ACH (Automatic Clearning House) transactions, it amounts to a free invite to your checking account money.

In more details, the series of digits at the bottom of your check includes a nine-digit routing number for your banking institution, a variable number of digits about your account number, and a four-digit number of your check number. If you have some experience with ACH, you know the routing number and account number are all that are necessary to connect to your checking account.

Many good-faith institutions, like AmeriTrade and PayPal in my experience, require a quick check by making two small-amount deposits to your account and asking you to report the exact amount of both transactions in a few days to verify you have the access to the account. Some other banks I experiences, for example, E*Trade, does not require such check before you can access money in the remote checking account. I am not sure if at the back end, a check of account holder name is processed; I suspect that, because in the E*Trade example, you can transfer money in both directions immediately. (BTW, E*Trade does offer a nice $175 promotion for newcomers -- some quick cash if you can invest up to two hours.)

What can you do? According to the article, you should write as few checks as possible, and only to trusted merchants. I probably write no more than two checks every month (one is to my kid's daycare facility). In most cases, I use credit cards or online bill pay in lieu of writing checks. It's very unlikely one can cut off your use of checkbook, but one can surely do better than the average American, who still depends on check for 15% of all transactions.

The article also predicts that the coming Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act or "Check 21," may introduce additional possibilities of checking account fraud. It adds to the urgency to move more of your checks to credit cards or online payments.

(Dave Taylor has a related entry in his blog.)

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