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.

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.

Money orders

Cashier’s checks

“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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Juan Castillo is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @JCastilloNerd.

Verified Jan. 20, 2017.


The article What Is a Certified Check? originally appeared on NerdWallet.