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Security of Bank Checks

As I now have a new credit union I need new checks.   I was just about to order them through the credit union like I usually do, but their price stopped me in my tracks:  $102 for 100 plain green checks!   Well I remember a couple decades ago my dad complaining about paying $1 per check, but that was way before mass-customization.

I’d have to get my own checks this time.   Checks are still a security problem for three main reasons.   Thieves steal your outgoing bill payments from your mailbox, then:

  • “wash” the checks with solvents to get your writing off, then they write their own amount to their alias;
  • use a color copier or scanner to duplicate your checks with new amounts;
  • physically cut out the writing and graft in something suitable to them.

(Get a good locking mailbox, and take your payments to the post office)

Back in the ’60’s there was a check kiter so prolific that he gained an international reputation:  Frank Abagnale.   In his early 20’s he used forged checks to steal millions of dollars and impersonate a doctor, an airline pilot, and others.   A very entertaining Tom Hanks/Leonardo DiCaprio movie was made about this part of his life called “Catch Me If You Can“).

Once he got out of jail Abagnale has consulted for the FBI, secret service and now runs his own fraud consultancy.   Talented guy.   Well you can buy secure checks that he’s designed here:
Abagnale check

These checks have a wavy, non-repeating background pattern that makes it hard to cut out sections and graft in.   And they have a pantograph which takes advantage of the way copiers and scanners work to show VOID VOID VOID if scanned or copied.   The inks will stain, speckle, or discolor if one of 80 different solvents are used, and there are two logos of thermochromic ink which disappear when you put your thumb on them or blow — can’t match this by copying.   And there’s a 3D hologram, and microprinting in the borders and on the back which blurs with almost all copiers or scanners, plus a watermark that can not be duplicated without a paper mill.

This is all fine, but it’s easy to buy check stock and with any bank routing number and account, just print up some more checks.   Sure this is possible, but let’s not give up and at least try…  at least scare the amateurs.   Security is layering — one method may not be enough, but multiple ones may be.

Only problem is, these Abagnale checks cost 3x to 5x what others charge.   So I researched and came down to these finalists, as a balance between cost and features:
EZ Checks   or    Stock Checks.

I am not a fan of the large size of these checks;   they’re 1/2″ larger than even standard commercial checks.   But they’re standard size for all the big accounting software, and they don’t come in a smaller size.   Also I really wanted three checks per page as it seems like a waste to have a page per check, but once I ran out of places to look I checked pricing — it’s around 17-21 cents per page so that’s fine.   I’ve decided on this:
EZ Check

Another issue is the MICR-encoded numbers across the bottom, which have the routing#, account#, and check#.   In the Olden Days banks had to use machines with magnetic detectors to read these MICR numbers;   the numbers are in these odd shapes so the machines could discern different magnetic patterns for different numbers.   But now we have optical scanners.   And even though the Fed says “a check is not a check unless the MICR is magnetic ink“, since the Check 21 Act (2003), “truncated” checks are allowed.

The fact is now checks are scanned to electronic form at almost the first point of entry and are moved electronically ever after.   All the check printing software companies say you don’t need that expensive MICR ink for your inkjet or laser printer — and even though it’s in their interest to say that, I believe them.   I’m not bothering with magnetic ink unless I run into a problem.

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