Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.
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The Not-Quite-Forgotten Check
When did you last write a check? Last month, I wrote my first check in almost 10 years to send funds to sponsor an out-of-state friend for a charity event. This was after I failed to convince my Luddite friend to sign up for an electronic peer-to-peer (P2P) app so I could send the funds almost instantly.
That experience caused me to think a bit more about that somewhat forgotten payment method: the hand-written paper check. The triennial Federal Reserve Payments Study as well as the annual Diary of Consumer Payment Choice (DCPC) have consistently shown that check usage continues to decline. The 2020 DCPC revealed that of the average of 35 payments (including cash) made per month, 2.3 were made by check. The 2016 DCPC showed an average of 46 payments per month with 3.3 of those using a check. While the share of overall payments made by check dropped by just about one-half of a percentage point, the absolute number of checks written dropped by 30 percent in just those four years.
With the decline in check usage, why are financial institutions and merchants seeing an increase in fraud losses related to checks? The simple answer is because checks are easy to counterfeit or alter. The industry has made efforts over the years to improve check document security, including techniques such as microprinting, holograms, embedded fibers, and tamper-resistant paper. Despite these defenses, most would consider the check to be "low tech" and, as this blog has often stated, criminals go for the low-hanging fruit, making checks ripe for the picking. Anyone with graphics software and a high-quality printer can readily turn out counterfeit checks. Blank check stock, some even incorporating the defenses mentioned above, can be purchased at most office supply and stationary outlets. The 2022 Association of Financial Professional's Payment Fraud and Control: Key Highlights report noted "that check fraud remains the most prevalent form of payments fraud," with two-thirds of their professionals reporting their organization had experienced some level of check fraud.
Losses from check fraud come in a variety of forms. I wrote about cashier's check fraud scams in a recent post. Criminals often use money mule networks to cash counterfeit checks or to purchase with a counterfeit check merchandise that the criminal then sells at a discounted price. The criminal may deposit counterfeit or altered checks and then take advantage of the time gap between funds availability and when the check is returned after being identified as fraudulent. Check out this comprehensive guide to check fraud.
The industry is now seeing small to mid-size financial institutions and merchants targeted. To mitigate check fraud, the best action for both consumers and businesses is to monitor checking accounts closely to spot any unauthorized items posting to the account. For businesses, consider positive-pay software that automatically alerts you of incoming checks with altered amounts or checks that may have been counterfeited. For financial institutions, software that verifies document integrity or detects transaction data anomalies can be useful. For merchants, third-party check verification services as well as strong customer documentation will help minimize losses.
Although it may be another decade before I write another check, the prevalence of check fraud relative to check use suggests that Take On Payments will continue to highlight this topic and discuss the industry's efforts to combat fraud.