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Credit: Nikita Belokhonov
I’ve written personal checks all my life.
Granted, in recent years, electronic payments and plastic have taken over, but occasionally, I still have to write one. Every time I do, I question whether checks are a good idea.
I questioned that very thing yesterday when Iwe wrote a check to a tree removal company. I signed the check, stepped back, and wondered, “What can these strangers do with this piece of paper?”
On it is my name, home address, signature, bank routing number, and checking account number. With that information, could the person commit some sort of crime? As it turns out, yes.
How Does Someone Get Your Bank Account Number?
When was the last time you gave out your bank account number?
I gave mine out yesterday, but I sometimes need to give it to have payments deposited or bills paid from my account. It’s not just my checking account, either. I have a savings account and a money market account, and that information can be stolen, too.
Here are a few ways someone could get your checking or savings account number.
1. You Write a Check to a Stranger
Personal checks aren’t nearly as common as they once were, but every now and then, I find myself pulling out that checkbook. If I can pay with plastic or a payment app like Venmo, I do, but some small businesses only take cash or check.
In those cases, you might want to think about heading to the ATM. Here’s why:
If you still have a checkbook, grab it. Take a look at the information printed on each check. You wouldn’t hand a stranger on the street a slip of paper with your name, home address, and banking information printed on it, but you’ll hand it over to a business?
When you give a check to someone, you trust that the person is going to treat it responsibly. Once it’s deposited, that piece of paper will remain. Unless the business destroys it, it can still end up in the wrong hands.
2. You Provide It for Direct Deposit
Your paycheck is probably not a paper check and it’s deposited by your employer directly into your bank account – like magic.
Only it isn’t magic.
When you start a new job, your employer will need your bank account and routing numbers to get things set up. Ideally, that information is treated responsibly, but there are no guarantees. What if a new human resources staff member has identity theft on their mind?
There are also job scams. You apply for a job you saw on a job board, and all seems legit, but after you’ve handed over your bank account number for direct deposit, the “employer” disappears.
Direct deposit is usually safe, but there are risks.
3. You’re Phished
Phishing comes in a variety of forms. They have one thing in common, though:
You receive a message with a link. When you click on it, you’re prompted for information on what appears to be a legit landing page. Without knowing it, you input sensitive information that is now in the hands of a scammer.
The email could be from your bank, citing problems with your account. In some cases, it’s a fake prize announcement. Whatever the reason, the goal of the scam is to obtain your bank account number.
4. You Download a Virus
Keylogger viruses and spyware are the two biggest threats to devices we use every day. Using these tools, someone can remotely capture information you enter. That includes usernames, passwords, and, yes, bank account numbers.
Both spyware and keyloggers lurk in the background, so you’ll have no idea you’ve been infected. Sluggish performance can be a sign, but it might not be noticeable. By the time you do notice it, there is no telling how much data has already been collected.
Credit: Nataliya Vaitkevich
5. Tax Preparer
I outsource my tax prep. It’s a huge relief. Luckily, I have a preparer I trust. He’s been doing my taxes for more than a decade.
It’s important to have someone you trust to keep you compliant with tax laws, but there’s also another reason…
If you want your tax refund deposited straight into your bank account, guess what your tax preparer will need? Your bank account information.
Maybe you don’t use a tax preparer. There’s plenty of software that can help you prepare your own returns. Some will even include a tax preparer to walk you through it via video chat. At the end of it, if you want your return electronically deposited, you’ll need to input your bank account number.
In either instance, you’ve put your information out there, where it could be stolen.
How Scammers Can Use Bank Account Numbers
Is there reason to worry? Definitely. Here are a few things scammers can do using your bank account number.
1. ACH Fraud
Many businesses use the automated clearinghouse (ACH) to manage electronic payments. Using your routing and checking account numbers, funds can be transferred from one account to another.
All this convenience comes at a price. ACH fraud is on the rise, increasing 8.2 percent from 2019 to 2020. Imposter scams are the top-reported fraud type, and that means bank account numbers are being captured and used.
What is an imposter scam? With an imposter scam, someone uses a stolen bank account number to set up ACH. This could be done to buy things online, set up recurring payments, or even redirect known payments to their own accounts.
2. Identity Theft
Identity theft requires some key pieces of information. Your name, address, and bank account number are a great start.
Chances are someone won’t be able to buy a house or apply for a loan with only that data, but when combined with key factors like your driver’s license number, Social Security number, or your place of birth, someone can do some serious damage.
3. Counterfeit Checks
It isn’t too tough to fake a check.
Although most authentic checks feature security elements like watermarks, not everyone scans for those. A fraudster can make a fake check in minutes using only your name and address, bank name, and account number.
Where can this person use a fake check? Small businesses and individual service providers might not have systems in place to verify a check. That means your very real information will be used to steal goods and services.
Will you be responsible for this? Chances are, no. But it’s still important to keep it from happening in the first place.
Credit: Andrea Piacquadio
4. Account Hacking
With your name and bank account number, a scammer has a great entryway into your account.
Of course, that alone won’t open the door for a hacker, but it’s a starting point.
Even if the hacker can’t crack your passwords and two-factor authentication, you’re still in danger. A scammer now knows some basic information that can be used to trick you into providing more.
In other words, knowing your bank type and name, the fraudster only has to create a fake landing page and track down a way to contact you. One message later, and you’re fooled into inputting your username and password.
5. Tax Fraud
The tax preparation process can put your account information at risk, but scammers can also use your bank account information to commit tax fraud.
Scammers will need your Social Security number to file as you and pocket your refund. Even then, the IRS has security measures in place that make it more difficult. However, scammers can use your bank account number and other information to fool you into believing they’re with the IRS.
Here’s how it works:
The scammer contacts you, claiming to be from the IRS. Your bank account number may even be included in the communication. There was an error with your refund, the message says, and you need to refile it. You’re directed to send the money to an account that turns out to belong to the scammer.
6. Money Laundering
Banks don’t like illegal activities.
That’s why money laundering exists. Criminals can run money through a stolen account to avoid their own accounts being flagged. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on your bank accounts. If you see unusual deposits, it could be a sign your account is being used for laundering.
What to Do If Your Account Number is Compromised
Usually, you won’t know your bank account number has been stolen until you see suspicious activity, but once you realize it, it’s important to take immediate action.
Here are some steps to take if you think your bank account number has been compromised.
1. Contact Your Bank
Your bank should be your first call whenever fraud could impact your account. Go through your account with a representative and make sure all the charges are legitimate. If there’s truly reason for concern, your bank may want to close your account and open a new one.
2. Change All Passwords
Your bank account numbers could be all a hacker needs to find a way into your account. To play it safe, change your online logins, and make sure you’ve enabled two-factor authentication.
3. File a Police Report
In some cases, it may be worth filing a police report. The police will want details, though, so have documentation of when, where, and how your account information was stolen.
Filing a police report won’t just help prevent future crimes. It could also come in handy
if you later discover identity theft. You’ll have paperwork to validate what happened.
4. Consider Identity Theft Protection
You’ll need to monitor your accounts and credit report for a while, but there are tools that can help. One of the best investments you can make is identity theft protection. This ensures that if someone uses your data to set up new accounts or request loans, you’ll be covered.
Credit: Soumil Kumar
How to Prevent Bank Account Number Theft
Of course, the easiest way to deal with bank account number theft is to ensure it never happens in the first place. Easier said than done, right? Maybe, but there are some steps you can take to reduce your risks.
1. Skip Personal Checks
There are more than a few ways to pay these days.
There’s credit card, debit card, peer-to-peer payment apps, wallet apps, and failing all else… cash.
If you encounter someone who can only take cash or check, opt for cash. It might take a little extra time to stop by an ATM, but it will be well worth it if it saves you from fraud.
2. Be Careful with ACH
I love the convenience of direct deposit. Mostly because I don’t have time to deal with depositing checks.
Years ago, we had to take paper checks to the bank. Now, we wake up on payday, and our pay is already in the account.
However, fraudsters know that handing out bank account information is part of doing business. If you’re in the market for a job, watch out for job scams. In general, take caution whenever you’re signing up for ACH.
3. Use Trusted Tax Preparers
Tax time brings fraudsters out of the woodwork. Choose only providers and software you trust. If you’re filing your own taxes, make sure you have a trusted internet connection or use a VPN if using a secured Wi-Fi connection before you input your Social Security number and direct deposit information.
4. Keep Your Account Locked Down
By now, you probably know the drill.
Your bank account can be hacked, as can your other accounts. A hacked checking or savings account can be devastating.
Stop right now and do a quick password assessment.
Have you changed your password lately? If not, that’s a great place to start. Make sure you’ve set a complex, hard-to-guess password that combines lower and uppercase letters, numbers, and special characters.
Also, make sure you’ve set up two-factor authentication on your account. If someone tries to log in from an unfamiliar device, you’ll get an alert.
Your bank account number can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Some scammers can use it to create fake checks or make online purchases, while others can dig deeper and commit identity theft using a combination of information on you. By doing what you can to protect your bank account, you’ll avoid the headaches that come with being scammed.
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