When you’re expecting a big payment – either from a person or a business – you may wonder what’s the safest way to receive it. You may have the same question if you need to make a payment to someone, or to a business.
While it’s easy to write a personal check, cashier’s checks and certified checks may be the better choice when large amounts of money are changing hands. Cashier’s checks and certified checks share some similarities, but one may offer a little more security than the other.
Both cashier’s checks and certified checks are official checks that are issued by a bank. Compared to personal checks, cashier’s checks and certified checks are generally viewed as more secure and less susceptible to fraud.
The biggest difference between the two lies in where the money's coming from. With a certified check, the money is withdrawn directly from your personal checking account and your name and account number appear on the check. A certified check will also have the words ‘certified’ or ‘accepted’ printed somewhere on the check and it’s signed by your bank.
A cashier’s check is drawn against the bank’s funds, not the money in your checking account. You purchase the cashier’s check using funds from your checking or savings account and the bank transfers the money to its own account. The cashier’s check is then issued with the bank’s name and account information.
It’s a subtle difference, but it’s important to note if you need to make a payment and the payee requests a certified check in place of a cashier’s check, or vice versa. It’s also important for understanding where funds are coming from if you’re receiving one of these checks.
Both cashier’s checks and certified checks are relatively low risk if the check in question is genuine. Between the two, however, a cashier’s check is generally regarded as the safer bet since the funds are drawn against the bank’s account, not an individual person’s or business’s.
Weighing the safety of one type of official check over another matters if you’re concerned about being a potential target for check fraud. Fraudulent check scams can take many forms, but one of the most common involves a scammer passing off a fake certified or cashier’s check as payment for a purchase.
Let's say, for example, that you have a car listed for sale through an online marketplace. The scammer contacts you to say they’re interested and presents you with an official-looking check from a bank as payment for the car. After you’ve deposited that check, however, the bank tells you that it’s a fake. Not only are you out the money, but you’ve also lost the car in the process.
Generally, banks are required by law to make the money from official bank checks (including cashier’s and certified checks) available to you within one business day after you deposit it to your account. But having the funds available doesn’t guarantee that the check is good. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it can take weeks for a bank to discover check fraud.
By that time, you may have written checks or made purchases with your debit card against that amount. If those debit payments are returned or your checks bounce, that could mean overdraft or non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees for you. (See Pros and Cons of Overdraft Protection.)
The FTC and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) offer some tips for avoiding fraud involving cashier’s checks and certified checks. First, carefully consider before accepting any official checks from people or businesses you don’t know well. If a buyer asks specifically to pay with a certified or cashier’s check, you might want to suggest an alternate method of payment, such as an escrow service.
If you do decide to accept a cashier’s or certified check as payment, call the bank that issued the check to verify whether it’s the real thing. The safest bet may be to ask a buyer to get the check from a local bank branch and go with them when it’s being issued. Finally, if you receive a cashier’s or certified check that you weren’t expecting, think twice before depositing it in your account. Lottery and sweepstake scams are another form of check fraud and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Both cashier’s checks and certified checks can be a secure way to pay, but you should be familiar with the signs of a check fraud scam any time you’re accepting one of these checks from someone you don’t know. And if you do suspect that an official check you’ve received and deposited into your account is fraudulent, contact your bank right away to minimize any fees you may be charged for insufficient funds or returned payments.