When you’re expecting a big payment, you may wonder what’s the safest way to receive it. For example, you might be selling a high-ticket item to a stranger through Craigslist. And if you're the one who needs to make a large payment—for a down payment on a house or when purchasing a car, for example—the payee may request a more secure form of payment than cash or a personal check.

Both cashier’s checks and certified checks may be a good choice in these scenarios. While the names are similar and they share some features—including increased safety when compared to personal checks—there are some key differences between the two.

Key Takeaways

  • Both cashier’s checks and certified checks are official checks that are guaranteed by a bank.
  • Compared to personal checks, cashier’s checks and certified checks are generally viewed as more secure and less susceptible to fraud. However, it's important to be on the lookout for scams.
  • Cashier’s checks are generally regarded as the safer bet since the funds are drawn against the bank’s account, not an individual person’s or business’s account.

Cashier's Checks

A cashier’s check is drawn against the bank’s funds, not the money in your checking account. To get a cashier's check, you transfer funds from your checking or savings account into the bank's own account (plus a small premium for the service). A bank representative then issues the cashier's check with the bank’s name and account information as well as the names of the payee and remitter. The funds are usually then available to the payee by the next business day.

Certified Checks

When you write a certified check, the money is drawn directly against your personal checking account, and your name and account number appear on the check. In addition to your signature, a bank representative will also sign the check, and it will have the words "certified" or "accepted" printed somewhere on it. The bank has guaranteed that check and may put a hold on those funds until the check clears.

Even though the bank certifies that the person writing a certified check has the money available in their account, the funds stay in that person's bank account until the certified check is deposited by the payee.

Which is Safer?

Assuming that the check is genuine, both cashier's and certified checks are secure forms of payment. 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 account. Plus, certified checks do not have the same watermarks that cashier's check have, making them slightly easier to fake.

Beware of 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. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency warns against this type of scam.

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.

Special Considerations

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 alternative method of payment, such as an escrow service or online payment.

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. Look up the bank's phone number online, rather than dialing the number printed on the check (which could be fake).

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 sweepstakes scams are another form of check fraud.

The Bottom Line

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.