How to Find Out If a Check You Received in the Mail Is Legitimate?

You were likely warned as a kid that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That's the case with most "checks" you receive in the mail from some entity claiming you won a prize, complete with a cashier's check to to prove it. But wait -- there's a catch. It's never as simple as just endorsing the check and putting it into your bank account. There's always some reason that you have to give a certain amount of the payment back to person or company issuing the check. That's a red flag.

Check Out the Check

The check itself may give you clues that it isn't legitimate. Inspect the physical check thoroughly. Pay careful attention to the following:

  • Bank information -- if there is no bank logo, or a post office box rather than a street address, suspect fraud.
  • Check edging -- real checks generally have at least one rough edge or perforation. An entirely smooth check is suspicious. Odds are someone printed it off their computer.
  • Check numbers -- legitimate checks have nine routing numbers, the initial numbers on the Magnetic Ink Character Recognition line on the bottom. Fewer than that, and the check is a fake. Also look at the check's top right corner. It should have a check number, and that number should match the last digits on the MICR. If any of these are missing or don't correspond, the check isn't good.
  • Paper stock -- the paper used for real checks is heavier than typical paper stock. A check that feels light -- or slippery -- may be fake.

Of course, some checks are so realistic that they fool banking professionals, and it can take weeks after a fake check is deposited for the fraud to come to light.

Expert Advice

The United States Post Office website states flatly that there is no legitimate reason anyone would send a check and, in return, ask for cash to be sent anywhere. If you receive a suspicious check in the mail, or have been the victim of a fake check scam, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service or the Federal Trade Commission.

United Parcel Service offers no-nonsense advice regarding an unexpected check received through its services: "Assume it is fraudulent." USP notes that one scam involves sending phony checks through its Next Day Air service, usually relating to a fake employment offer or online advertisement. "Do not assume that the method of delivery lends any legitimacy to the contents of the package," warns UPS.