What Is a Certified Check?

A certified check gives peace of mind to the recipient that the check is legitimate — the account holder’s signature on the check is authentic and enough money is available to ensure the check doesn’t bounce. A certified check might be used to purchase a major appliance, buy a car, pay taxes or cover court fees.

[Read: Best Savings Accounts.]

How Do Certified Checks Work?

A certified check is a personal check that a bank or credit union has guaranteed is valid.

Typically, an account holder must visit a bank or credit union branch to obtain a certified check. At the branch, a bank or credit union employee verifies that you have enough money in your account to cover the check when it is cashed or deposited. The financial institution usually won’t release the funds for any reason other than covering the check.

The account holder and the bank or credit union employee both sign the check. The check is marked to indicate it has been certified.

How Do I Get a Certified Check?

Some, but not all, banks and credit unions offer certified checks. Online-only banks don’t provide certified checks.

How Much Does a Certified Check Cost?

Some financial institutions may provide a certified check at no cost, while others may charge roughly $15. Fees vary from institution to institution.

[Read: Best Checking Accounts.]

What’s the Difference Between a Cashier’s Check and a Certified Check?

When you write a certified check, it’s backed by the money in your own account. That’s not the case with a cashier’s check.

The money to pay for a cashier’s check comes from your account, but then the bank or credit union deposits that money into one of its own accounts. Once the cashier’s check is deposited or cashed, the money backing the check is taken out of the financial institution’s account, not your account.

A signature of a bank or credit union representative appears on a cashier’s check, but your signature does not. That’s because the check is not a personal check; instead, it’s a check written on one of the financial institution’s own accounts.

A cashier’s check and a certified check are roughly equivalent, because they both have guaranteed funds backing them. While online banks aren’t able to certify a check because they have no branches, they can issue cashier’s checks.

Expect to pay around $10 for a cashier’s check, although certain account holders may be able to get one at no cost.

[Read: Best Online Banks.]

How to Prevent Certified Check Fraud

When you receive a certified check, be on the lookout for fraud.

In many cases, a crook carries out certified check fraud by printing fake but legitimate-looking checks. A phony check may even show the real name and address of a financial institution.

You also might become the victim of certified check fraud when someone sends you a check from an identity fraud victim’s account.

To prevent certified check fraud, follow these tips from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.:

Make sure the check was issued by a bank that actually exists. Use the FDIC’s BankFind tool or the National Credit Union Administration’s Research a Credit Union tool to verify the legitimacy of a bank or credit union.

Contact the bank or credit union. If the financial institution is legitimate, reach out to it to get the check verified. Be sure to call the phone number listed on the financial institution’s official website. The phone number printed on the check might be a fake number set up by the fraudster.

Be suspicious of the sender. If you don’t know who sent the check to you, someone might be trying to scam you.

Watch out for spelling and grammar slip-ups. Did you receive an email or text message from the sender? If so, look for spelling errors and bad grammar, which may indicate a fraudster is behind the check.

Look at the postmark. If the envelope’s postmark doesn’t match the city and state where the financial institution is located, the check might be phony. A check mailed from overseas should also arouse your suspicion.

Determine whether the amount of the check was what you anticipated. Fake checks often are made out for more than the agreed-upon amount. “This is intended to coax the person receiving the check into wiring the overpayment back to the scammer,” says the FDIC.

Carefully examine the check. Official checks usually contain security features such as watermarks, security threads and color-changing ink. Although scammers can replicate these features, they often do a sloppy job.

If you believe you’ve been the victim of certified check fraud and deposited or cashed the check, contact your bank or credit union right away. Spending the money from a fake check puts you at risk of a frozen or overdrawn account and overdraft fees.

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What Is a Certified Check? originally appeared on usnews.com

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