You’re closing an important transaction, and the seller asks you to pay by certified check. Fine, you say. But what is a certified check, and why and when should you use one?
A certified check is a personal check written by an account holder, drawn on the holder’s account and guaranteed by the bank.
With a certified check, the bank or financial institution makes sure that the signature is genuine and that the account holder had enough money in the account to cover the check at the time it was written. The bank then sets aside the full amount of the check to guarantee the money will be available when the check is cashed or deposited.
That guarantee is one feature that a certified check shares with another bank product, the cashier’s check.
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Why use a certified check?
In some financial transactions, especially larger ones, paying with cash can be impractical for buyers, and accepting payment by a regular personal check can be risky for sellers — especially if they have doubts about a buyer’s ability to pay. A certified check can reduce risks for everyone in such a transaction.
“The whole purpose of a certified check is to ensure the person who’s getting paid that there’s money behind the check,” says Nessa Feddis, senior vice president at the American Bankers Association.
“The [check] recipient is looking for some guarantee of getting paid. If I’m selling my car and I’m handing it over, and if they give me a personal check, that check may come back as uncollectible and I can’t get the car back.”
Certified check vs. cashier’s check
How is a certified check different from a cashier’s check?
Both fall under the definition of what banks call an “official check.” Both are used instead of cash, credit or personal checks, and both are used to guarantee payment. And, with rare exceptions, the purchaser can’t stop payment on either type of check.
With a cashier’s check, funds are drawn against the bank, not against a personal account, as is the case with a certified check.
There is one significant difference, however. With a cashier’s check, the bank receives money from the purchaser, then issues the check and guarantees its payment at face value. Funds are drawn against the bank, not against a personal account, as is the case with a certified check.
How to guard against possible fraud
Still, like any other form of payment, cashier’s checks and certified checks are vulnerable to fraud, and it’s your responsibility to make sure the check you receive is legitimate and not counterfeit.
You might think it’s easy to spot a phony check. But while some red flags — such as typos and grammatical errors — are easy to spot, most bad checks don’t have dead giveaways. With technology, counterfeiters can easily copy bank logos and branding off the internet.
If you’re in doubt about a check, call your bank to verify its legitimacy.
Don’t take any chances. Banking security experts warn that it’s tough to recognize a fake and recommend that you call the bank immediately upon receiving the check to verify that it’s legitimate. Don’t call the number printed on the check, though; it could be phony, too. Find the bank’s phone number online, call it, and then give the bank the check number and the name of the purchaser.
You can be held responsible for a bad check
Under banking regulations, deposited funds typically are available as soon as the next business day. But if you happen to deposit a cashier’s check, withdraw the funds and send out the money or merchandise, only to have the bank discover that the check was fraudulent, you may be held responsible for the entire amount of the bad check.
Because their face value is guaranteed, legitimate certified checks are as good as cash. They can help ease your mind when exchanging goods or services in a large transaction. But as with any situation involving your money, be careful and avoid falling victim to counterfeiters.
Fees for certified and cashier’s checks
Many banks and credit unions offer certified checks and cashier’s checks, though not all offer both, and some differ on terminology, calling them “official checks.” Check with your financial institution for availability. Fees can be $15 or higher, depending on the size of the check. Some financial institutions, however, offer reduced fees or no fees for account holders.
|Ally Bank||Doesn’t issue certified checks. Customers can call the bank to request a cashier’s check at no charge.|
|Bank of America||Cashier’s checks: $10 for account holders, free for Preferred Rewards program customers. No certified checks; bank says its cashier’s checks are certified.|
|BBVA Compass||Cashier’s checks: $8 for account holders. Does not offer certified checks.
|Capital One||Cashier’s checks for 360 Checking customers: $20 online with overnight shipping; $10 in branch.
|Chase Bank||Cashier’s checks free for customers.|
|Discover||Online bank offers free official checks only to bank customers.
|Pentagon Federal Credit Union||Offers certified checks and cashier’s checks as share withdrawals or official checks. No fee.
|PNC Bank||Certified checks and cashier’s checks: Free for holders of certain accounts, including Performance Checking, Virtual Wallet Performance, Performance Select Checking and Virtual Wallet Performance Select. $10 fee per check for all other accounts.
|Santander Bank||Certified checks are $15 for Santander customers. Official checks are $10, but the fee is waived for customers with Premier Plus Checking, Premier Plus Money Market Savings, or Select Checking accounts.
|State Farm Bank||Customers can call the online-only bank to request a cashier’s check at no charge for standard delivery via USPS. There is a $10 fee for overnight delivery; Saturday and holiday delivery costs extra.|
|SunTrust Bank||Offers official checks: $8 for bank customers and $15 for noncustomers. No charge for Select and Signature Advantage checking accounts.
|TD Bank||Official checks: $8; fee is waived for TD customers who have Relationship, Premier or 60-Plus Checking accounts.
|Union Bank||Cashier’s checks: $10 for customers; $15 for noncustomers.
|U.S. Bank||Offers cashier's checks for $7. Fee is waived for customers with Platinum and Premium checking accounts.
|Wells Fargo||Certified checks and cashier’s checks: $10; free with PMA Checking.
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Updated Jan. 20, 2017.