In the 21st century, much of our banking takes place electronically in many forms, from paychecks being deposited into personal accounts automatically, to using applications such as Zelle® on our phone to transfer funds, to using bank or credit union mobile apps to take pictures of checks to deposit them. But even with the widespread use of digital and mobile banking, according to the Federal Reserve, billions of physical, paper checks are still written each year by companies and individuals. And, as with any financial tool, checks can be exploited in several ways by fraudsters, including check kiting or using software to change a digital image of a check to falsify it.
Since checks may be misused by crooks, you should take a few simple precautions when writing personal checks to help make them more resistant to being manipulated by anyone who wants to take your money and/or create problems with your checking account. Because of this year's date of 2020, there's one special detail to note when dating a check and other legal and financial documents; it's explained below.
Checks are legal documents, and there are many other types you will likely encounter, including those needed for opening a basic financial account such as checking or savings, applying for a loan, opening an investment account, writing a will, certifying a marriage, renting an apartment, and many others. When writing a check and filling out other types of legal documents, you should consider following these recommendations:
- When dating your check this year (along with other legal and financial documents), do not abbreviate the year “2020” to “20”. If you leave off the full date of “2020” more numbers can be added to an abbreviated date on a document to change the date, so that signing a document “1/12/20” could be changed to “1/12/2018”.
- On the blank line of the check where you write the full name of the amount to be paid (usually the second line), be certain to use the entire line with text or by drawing lines through the space. If you leave part of the amount line blank then someone could add text to change the amount of the check.
- Do not write your Social Security number on the check. Unless you have specific instructions for a special purpose—such as writing a check to pay taxes to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service—you should avoid putting your Social Security number on a check, as it is personally identifiable information that could be used to steal your identity or compromise your financial accounts.
- Sign the check with your full name, as a partial name may not be considered legally valid. If your name is “Mia Jones” then that is the name you should sign, rather than just “Mia”, “MJ”, “Jones”, a nickname or anything else.
On the “memo” line, write a description of the purpose of the payment that you can understand now and remember later. There's not much room for detail on checks, but it's still better to say “Repayment for lunch loan” instead of “Repayment”.
- In many legal documents, you will have to initial each page or specific sections on a page. Always initial within the spaces indicated, and be certain that your initials are clear and legible.
- In general, always make an effort to write legibly on a legal document. In most legal documents you’ll be writing in block letters, but sometimes you will be signing your name in cursive, which should be readable as well—an illegible scribble might result in the signature's authenticity being challenged in court.
Paper check and legal documents use has been declining, and that is likely to continue as more and more financial transactions and legal arrangement happen online and on our phones. But people will be filling out documents for at least a few more years or many more decades, and to protect yourself it is essential to be cautious and thorough about how your documents are filled in, dated, and signed.