As a consumer, identifying a fraudulent check can be a daunting task, so much so that even trained bank professionals might miss the signs. Fraudulent transactions reached a staggering $25.1 billion, with 47% of them being check fraud.¹ So, the consequences can be severe, which helps to know what happens if you unknowingly deposit a fake check.
You should be aware of how to protect yourself from falling victim to a fake check scam and know the necessary steps to take if it happens to you. Unfortunately, those who deposit fraudulent checks, even unknowingly, may still be responsible for costly fees to rectify the situation. Banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but it may take weeks to uncover a fake check, leading to fees like overdraft charges.
The rise in fake check scams is part of a broader trend of financial deception, with various authorities warning consumers to be on the lookout. Whether or not the error was intentional, those who deposit a fake check into their checking or savings account often have to pay fees.[box title=”Key Takeaways” style=”soft” box_color=”#333333″ title_color=”#FFFFFF” radius=”3″]
- Even if you unknowingly deposit a fake check, you may be responsible for costly fees like overdraft charges.
- Depositing a fake check can lead to paying back the entire amount, account freezing, late fees, and credit score damage.
- Tips to avoid fake check scams include verifying with the bank, being cautious with the amount, and waiting for verification.
- Legal consequences of depositing a fake check vary by state and can include fines, jail time, or misdemeanor or felony charges.
What is a Fake Check?
A fake check is a counterfeit check that looks very real. With today’s technology, it’s easy for scammers to create fake checks that even bank employees might think are genuine.
How do fake check scams work?
- You Get a Check. Someone sends you a check. It might be for a prize, a job like mystery shopping, or they might say they overpaid you for something you’re selling.
- You Unknowingly Deposit a Fake Check. They’ll ask you to deposit the check and then do something with the money, like buy gift cards or send some of it back to them.
- The Bank Finds Out It’s Fake. Later, the bank finds out the check is fake. By then, the scammer has the money you sent, and you have to pay the bank back.
Common Fake Check Scams
- You’ve Won a Prize: They say you’ve won something but need to pay fees or taxes. The prize is fake. Never use money from a check to send gift cards, money orders, or wire money to anyone.²
- You’re Hired: They “hire” you for a job like secret shopping and ask you to buy gift cards. The job is fake. If something seems off, it probably is. Only trust people you know.
- You Were Overpaid: They overpay for something you’re selling and ask for a refund. The payment is fake. Don’t accept a check for more than what you’re selling something for.³
Why Are These Scams Effective?
- They Look Real. Fake checks often look like real checks. They might have the right watermarks and seem to come from real banks.
- They Use Real Accounts. Sometimes, they’re real checks from stolen accounts.
- Banks Might Not Catch It Right Away. Banks have to make money available quickly, so it might take weeks to find out a check is fake.
See also: how banks verify mobile checks
What Happens if You Unknowingly Deposit a Fake Check?
When you deposit a check, you might think you can use the money right away. But if the check is fake, it can cause problems.
How it works: you put a check in the bank. The law, mandated by the federal Expedited Funds Availability Act, says banks must let you use the money quickly.⁴ Often, you can take out the money the next business day.
In one or two days, the check may clear. This means you can take out the money. But be careful. Just because the check clears doesn’t mean it’s real.
The bank where you deposited the check has to wait for the other bank to pay. If the check is fake, the other bank won’t pay. It can take weeks to find this out.
While waiting, you might spend the money. You think it’s in your account, but it’s not really there if the check is fake.
If the other bank says the check is bad, it will bounce. This means you can’t cash it. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know the check was fake.
If the check was fake, you’ll probably have to pay the bank back. You’ll have to return all the money you took out.
So, depositing a fake check unknowingly can be tricky. Even if the bank lets you take out the money, you might have to pay it back if the check is found to be counterfeit.
And Now the Consequences?
Even if you unknowingly deposit a fake check, the consequences can be expensive.
1. You Might Have to Pay Back the Money
If you deposit a fake check, even if you didn’t know it was fake, you might have to pay back the entire amount.
Different banks and states have different rules, but you could be responsible for paying back all the money from the fraudulent check.
2. Your Bank Account Could Be Closed or Frozen
Your bank might decide to freeze or even close your account if you unknowingly deposit a fake check. It’s a good idea to look at your bank’s rules to see when they can do this.
3. Late Fees Could Add Up
If you can’t pay your bills because the check was bad, you might have to pay late fees. For instance, credit card late fees can go up to $40.
4. Overdraft Fees Are Possible
If you spend the money from the check before the bank finds out it’s fake, your account could get overdrawn. This means you could face overdraft fees, which are usually around $30 for each transaction.
5. It Can Hurt Your Credit Score
If the check bounces and you miss bill payments that are linked to your checking account, it can damage your credit scores.
Credit bureaus look at your payment history to figure out your credit scores, so missing payments can be harmful.
6. Your Banking History Could Be Affected
If you keep depositing bad checks, companies like ChexSystems will keep a record of it. Banks might look at this information when you try to open a new checking account. If you have a bad banking history, they might say no.
Can You Go to Jail for Depositing a Fake Check?
Depositing a fake check can lead to different consequences depending on the situation and the laws in your state. Here’s a simple and explanatory breakdown, including information on some states:
- If You Didn’t Know It Was Fake: If you deposit a fake check without knowing it’s fake, you’re unlikely to face criminal charges.
- If You Knew It Was Fake: If you knowingly deposit a fake check, you might face fines and even jail time.
Details by State
- Check fraud can be classified as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the amount involved and the circumstances.
- Forgery, including check fraud, can be charged as a felony under Section 32.24 of the Penal Code.
- What’s the Law? In Florida, if you cash a fake check on purpose to trick someone, it’s a serious crime.
- What Could Happen? If you’re found guilty, you might have to go to prison for up to five years.
- What’s the Law? In Pennsylvania, if you cash a check knowing it’s bad, you could be in trouble. The seriousness depends on how much the check is for.
- What Could Happen for a Smaller Amount (like $1,000 to $74,999)? If you cash a bad check for this amount, it’s a less serious crime (misdemeanor). You might have to pay a fine between $1,500 and $10,000 and could go to jail for up to five years.
- What Could Happen for a Bigger Amount (like $75,000 or more)? If you cash a bad check for this amount, it’s a more serious crime (felony). The fine could be from $2,500 to $15,000, and you might have to go to prison for up to seven years.
Severity of Punishment
- The severity of the punishment often depends on the amount of money involved in the fraudulent action. The more money, the greater the criminal consequences.
- Misdemeanor check fraud is typically punishable by less than one year in jail and some criminal fines.
- Felony check fraud may lead to more than one year in prison and higher criminal fines.
- If you unknowingly deposit a fake check, that might serve as a defense if you unknowingly deposit a fake or forged check.
- Other defenses may include coercion, where a person is forced under threat to commit fraud.
How to Spot a Fake Check Scam
1. Check with the Bank, Not the Number on the Check
If you get a check, don’t call the number on it as it might be fake. Instead, find the bank’s customer service number on their website and call them to make sure the check is real.
2. Look at the Amount Carefully
If someone gives you a check for more money than they owe you, be careful. That’s a sign something might be wrong.
3. Don’t Send Money to Strangers
If someone gives you a check and then asks you to send them money, it’s probably a scam. Real checks don’t work like that.
4. Wait Until the Check is Checked
It can take a while for the bank to make sure a check is good. Even if the money shows up in your account, don’t spend it until the bank says it’s okay. If the check is fake, you’ll have to pay the money back.⁵
5. Avoid Common Scams
Scammers use fake checks for things like fake job offers, prizes, or buying things online. Be careful if someone you don’t know asks you to deposit a check and send some of the money back.
6. Don’t Trust a Check Just Because It Looks Real
Fake checks can look very real, even to bank workers. Just because a check looks good doesn’t mean it is.
7. Report Any Problems
If you think you’ve been scammed with a fake check, tell the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, or your state’s Attorney General.
Conclusion— What to Do if You Unknowingly Deposit a Fake Check
- Call Your Bank. If you find out a check is fake before your bank does, call them right away. They might be able to stop money from being taken out of your account or even freeze it if needed.
- Notify the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). You can file a report with the FTC. They’ll give you a list of things to do to keep your identity safe if someone has your personal information.⁶
- Complain to State and Local Consumer Protection Agencies. Let your local authorities know, including the office of your state’s attorney general. They can help you understand your rights and what to do next.
- File a Police Report. Usually, banks have to give customers their money back if a forged check takes money out of their account. But you might have to file a report with your local police to qualify for this.
Frequently Asked Questions
So, while thoroughly working on what happens if you unknowingly deposit a fake check, we identified these commonly asked questions.
How Long Can You Go to Jail for Depositing a Fake Check?
The jail time for depositing a fake check depends on the state laws and the amount involved. For example:
- Florida: Cashing a worthless check with intent to defraud is a felony, and you could face up to five years in prison.
- Pennsylvania: If you knowingly cash a bad check, the charges depend on the check amount. For a check between $1,000 to $74,999, it’s a misdemeanor with up to five years in jail. For a check of $75,000 or more, it’s a felony with up to seven years behind bars.
How Long Does it Take for a Fake Check to Bounce?
If you deposit a fake check, it can take weeks before the bank realizes that it’s counterfeit. While the federal Expedited Funds Availability Act requires banks to make deposited funds available quickly (often the next business day), the bank may not find an issue with the check until the other bank returns it unpaid. It can be weeks before that happens, and in the meantime, you may spend the money thinking it was available in your account.
Can a Bank Verify a Fake Check?
Yes, banks can verify a fake check, but it might not be immediate. Fake checks can be difficult to identify, and technology has advanced so much that people can produce fake checks that are hard to recognize as fraudulent. If you receive a check, you can contact the bank that issued the check to verify its legitimacy. Don’t call the number listed on the check, as counterfeit checks often have fake numbers. Look up the bank’s customer service number on its website to verify the check.
- Deposit Account Fraud Survey. American Bankers Association
- Fake Prize, Sweepstakes, and Lottery Scams. FTC
- Don’t Cash That Check! Check Overpayment Scams. Department of Justice
- Federal Consumer Financial Protection Guide. NCUA
- How To Spot, Avoid, and Report Fake Check Scams. Consumer FTC
- Reporting Fraud, Waste, Abuse, or Mismanagement. FTC
Read also: How Long Does a Mobile Check Deposit Take?
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