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Consumer Advisory 2005-1
August 2, 2005
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You already know in many ways how your checking account works. You write paper checks, withdraw money from an automated teller machine (ATM), or pay with a check card. Your paycheck might go by "direct deposit" into your account, or you might deposit checks at a bank's teller window or ATM.
But recently, you might have noticed changes in your checking account. The checks you write might be "clearing"—the money is being taken out of your account—faster. Some checks you write might be listed as "ACH" transactions on your bank statement. Instead of receiving canceled checks back from your bank, you might be receiving "substitute checks."
Checks are being handled in some new ways these days, and those changes can affect how you handle your money.
Electronic processing may be even more common in the future, but one thing will not change: you will continue to have the right to dispute any mistake and clear up problems with your account, whether you have the original check or not.
Traditionally, when you write a check, the paper check is transported from bank to bank before the money is taken out of your account. Now that many checks are being processed electronically, money may be taken out of your account faster. To avoid bounced checks and related fees, you must be sure you have enough money available in your account to cover each check when you write it (and when you withdraw funds at an ATM).
Although electronic processing might mean that the check you write clears faster, the funds that you deposit might not be available to you any faster. A federal rule governs the maximum time your bank can wait before making deposited funds available to you, and that rule hasn't changed. That's why you need to know exactly how much money is available in your account at the moment you write a check. For example, money from a check you deposit on a Monday might not be available until the following week. So, if you count on that deposit when you write a check on Tuesday to pay a bill, that check might bounce.
Also, be sure that the available account balance you're counting on does not include funds from your bank's "overdraft protection" program. It's possible that an account balance statement could include an overdraft protection amount, which could lead you to believe you have more money in your account than you really do.
Remember, the way your check is processed affects how fast your check clears, and you have only limited ability to control the way your check is processed.
A check you write can be processed in several ways:
You probably can tell how your check was processed after the fact by looking at your bank statement. Your bank is required to list every EFT transaction in your monthly bank statement, including the dollar amount, the date the transaction cleared, and the name of the recipient. Electronic transactions may be grouped together, apart from your regular check transactions.
If you receive a paper substitute check, you will be able to identify it by this statement: "This is a legal copy of your check. You can use it the same way you would use the original check."
If a merchant wants to turn your paper check into an EFT, the merchant should give you notice that your payment will be processed that way. There might be a sign at the cash register, or the cashier could inform you.
Not usually. Check processing involves several parties—you, the person you're paying, that person's bank, and your bank. Each party has an interest in efficient, reliable check processing. Somewhere along the line, one of the parties might choose to process your payment electronically.
However, you can contact a party to whom you regularly mail checks, for example, the phone or credit card company, and tell them not to turn your paper checks into electronic ACH transactions.
No law requires your bank to send you your canceled checks. If you receive your checks or copies of checks, that's usually because of your customer agreement with your bank and its policies. Many consumers don't receive their checks or even copies of their checks.
If you've usually received canceled checks with your bank statement, you could start receiving substitute checks—the special paper copies created under the Check 21 Act—instead of, or in addition to, canceled checks.
Even if you do not usually receive canceled checks, you may ask your bank to provide you with copies of specific original checks or the canceled checks themselves. In most cases, your bank will be able to give you a copy of the check. But your bank might not always be able to. When a paper check is processed electronically, the original check typically is destroyed.
Let's say the wrong amount was deducted from your checking account. Or, maybe you've discovered a payment that you never authorized. No matter how your check was processed, you should contact your bank right away. The bank might be able to clear up the problem quickly.
Even without a canceled check, you can prove that you made a payment with your bank statement, which shows the date and amount of the payment. You also might have a receipt from a retail transaction. In any case, the law does not require you to have the original paper check, or even a copy of it, to resolve a problem with a bank.
Generally speaking, you will not be held responsible for processing errors or transactions that you did not authorize. Different laws and rules apply, depending on how your check was processed.
Rules that govern EFT payments will apply if you make an ATM withdrawal or if you use a debit card (check card), debit card number, or your checking account number without writing a paper check.
You could also make a payment through a "demand draft" or "remotely created check" (RCC) by authorizing someone to withdraw money from your account without your signature. For example, you could authorize your credit card company by phone to make an RCC for payment on your credit card account before the monthly deadline. The UCC applies to RCCs. While RCCs can be useful, you must trust the person or company you allow to create an RCC, because the RCC does not include your signature, and proving that you did not authorize the payment could be difficult.
If you have a problem with the recipient of your check—an entity other than a financial institution, such as a department store—contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) toll-free at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). More information about contacting the FTC is on the web at www.ftc.gov.