Certificates of deposit (CDs), whether purchased online or at a brick-and-mortar bank, are perfectly safe places to stash your cash as long as you follow these rules:
- Make sure the money in your CD is federally insured against losses by either the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) if it's a bank or by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUI) if it's a credit union. Almost all legitimate financial institutions are insured by one or the other.
- Make sure you're dealing with a legitimate institution and not a scam. Granted, scams are more easily pulled off online than off.
- Read the fine print. Most CDs do not have fees attached but there is a penalty for withdrawing your money early, and the amount of that penalty is up to the bank.
- Certificates of deposit are considered very low-risk investments. They offer a guaranteed return on your money and almost all are insured by the federal government.
- Legitimate online banks offer the same protections for your CD as traditional banks, and some pay better interest rates. Just make sure your money is FDIC-insured, and beware of scams.
- It’s important to verify that an online bank is legitimate, but once you’ve done so, you can rest assured that your money is safe in an online bank CD.
Understanding Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
Certificates of deposit are popular products for savers looking to put aside some money for the short term in return for a better rate of interest than an ordinary savings account usually gets.
If it is FDIC-insured, as almost all banks are, CDs are considered among the safest investments available because the investor can't lose the principal, as is all too possible in the stock market, and because the principal is insured even in the event of a financial collapse by the institution that holds the money.
Moreover, the interest rate is fixed and guaranteed. It can't be reduced during the term of the CD if interest rates in the world at large decrease. (It won't be increased if interest rates rise, either.)
It's worth noting that the FDIC has been in operation since 1933 and no depositor has since lost a penny from a bank deposit.
Savings Deposit vs. CD
Your money is equally safe in a savings account or a CD. Both types of deposits are federally insured against losses for up to $250,000 per depositor per institution. A joint CD account is insured for up to $500,000.
A CD commits you to leaving the money in the account for a set term, which can be anywhere from a few months to 10 years or more. They usually pay a little more in interest than a savings account. Generally, the longer the commitment, the higher the interest rate.
You can get your money out of a CD before it matures but there's a penalty for doing so. The amount of the penalty is up to the institution, but it can eat into the interest you earn if not eliminate it.
Where to Buy a CD
Like savings accounts, CDs are available at almost any bank, online or off. They're also available from credit unions and brokerages.
The CDs offered by online banks are just as safe as those offered by their giant corporate peers, as long as their deposits are federally insured. It is very rare for a financial institution, online or off, to not be FDIC insured. A few small banks are state-insured instead.
If you want to make sure that a bank is FDIC you can use the FDIC's BankFind database.
That said, it always pays to be wary of outright scams.
CDs at Online Banks
When you open a CD with an FDIC- or NCUA-insured institution, up to $250,000 of your funds on deposit with that institution are protected by the U.S. government if that institution were to fail. The figure is $500,000 for joint accounts.
If you have more than $250,000 to invest, you can split it between institutions to make sure it’s all protected.
These guarantees apply to online banks just as they do to traditional brick-and-mortar banks. This means that CDs at online banks are just as safe as those held with Main Street banks.
The Online Banking Advantage
There is a benefit to investing in a CD online rather than in person.
It’s now possible to shop for CDs at more than 150 banks that accept customers nationwide. This creates a lot of competition to offer higher interest rates on CDs and greatly expands your choices beyond your own neighborhood.
The lack of significant infrastructure and overhead costs enables online-only banks to pay higher interest rates or annual percentage yields (APY) on CDs and other types of savings. The most generous of them offer as much as 1% to 2% more than you'll earn on accounts at a traditional bank.
About 56% of account holders do at least some of their banking via the internet.
Avoiding CD Scams
CDs are subject to fraud, just like any other investment product. And it's easier to put up a fake website than it is to put up a fake brick-and-mortar bank. If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of a company you are dealing with you, you should verify that they are who they say they are.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) suggests several ways to do this:
- If a company’s website or promotional materials says their CDs are FDIC insured, check for the financial institution with the FDIC’s BankFind tool, or call 877-ASKFDIC (877-275-3342). The name of the financial institution should exactly match the FDIC listing.
- If the website or promotional materials say the CD is offered by a credit union, you can check this using the National Credit Union Administration’s (NCUA) Research a Credit Union tool or call NCUA’s Consumer Assistance Center at 800-755-1030.
- If a company’s website provides a name and a CRD number of a broker-dealer or an employee of a broker-dealer, you can use FINRA’s BrokerCheck. This tool is used to verify whether the address provided in FINRA’s BrokerCheck matches the address provided by the company offering the CD.
As long as the company offering CDs is registered in this way, your money should be safe.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are CDs Safe?
CDs are among the safest investment products possible. The principal is safe, unlike in many investments. And the interest rate is guaranteed. Just make sure you're getting the CD from a federally-insured institution.
Are Online Banks Safe?
There are many trustworthy and safe online banks. Fifty-six percent of account holders do at least some of their banking on the internet. Online banks often offer better returns on your money than their Main Street competitors. As always on the internet, beware of scams.
Why Choose an Online Bank CD?
You may get a better interest rate from an online bank. For one thing, they have lower overhead costs and can afford to be more generous. Moreover, the internet gives you access to about 150 banks across the country that allow out-of-state depositors. CD rates vary widely, so it pays to shop around rather than stop by your local bank branch.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to verify that an online bank (or, for that matter, a brick-and-mortar bank) is legitimate and that its deposits are federally-insured. Once you’ve done so, you can rest assured that your money is safe in an online bank CD.
Certificates of deposit are some of the safest investments available. They offer a guaranteed return on your money with no risk to your principal whether the CD is from a huge financial services institution or a small online provider.
Online banks should offer the same protections for your CD as brick-and-mortar banks and sometimes better interest rates.