Over the last few years, I’ve become completely accustomed to sending money electronically for pretty much every purpose. I use online bill pay for almost all of my transactions. I use credit cards for a lot of merchant transactions. I use Venmo and PayPal to give money to my friends (and to receive money from them).
Yet, every once in a while, I find that there’s still some reason why someone wants me to send funds through the mail.
Sending money through the mail comes with a lot of security risks. Your envelope is handled by quite a few people along the way and if one of them opens that envelope, they have access to whatever’s inside the envelope and whatever information it contains. This goes beyond simply cashing a check — they may be able to “wash” that check and change the amount or simply scrape your banking account information, name, and address right off the document.
This leaves us with a key question: how does one send money through the mail with maximum security?
As with most things, there are a bunch of options and tactics, each with different costs and benefits and drawbacks. Here are some of the most cost-effective options and strategies you can use that get rid of most of the risks of sending money through the mail.
Never, ever send cash through the mail. The second someone opens that envelope, that money is gone. I wouldn’t send cash to a person I trusted deeply simply because of the risk of sending cash, as it’s completely irrecoverable if it’s stolen.
The only time I might even consider it is if I were slipping a $5 bill into a child’s birthday card or something like that, where the effort and drawbacks of writing and sending a check aren’t worth the cost.
Rather than sending a check, send a money order. You can get a money order at most post offices for a small fee (currently between $1.20 and $1.60) and you can get them even cheaper at Walmart, where the fee is currently below $1 for money orders up to $1,000.
The advantage of a money order is that it can only be converted back into cash by the recipient at the designated location (the post office or Wal-Mart) with some identification. Even better, a money order does not have personal identification from you on it, plus you can usually track it and ensure that it’s been cashed (I can personally verify that the postal service has a nice money order tracking system).
Yes, it comes with that pesky fee attached, but it definitely makes sending payments through the mail much more secure.
Send a cashier’s check. Another option is to send your money via cashier’s check, which is a special document that can be prepared at your bank. In essence, a cashier’s check is a more secure form of a check that’s also more reliable for the recipient because your bank is guaranteeing the check, not your personal guarantee. Cashier’s checks usually come with a few security features that minimize the security risk of sending one. It does come with a fee that varies from bank to bank.
Use indelible ink. Whenever you send a payment document through the mail, especially a check, use a pen that has indelible ink to send it. This way, the check cannot be “washed,” meaning that a nefarious person can’t remove the ink from the check and write in a different amount.
While this doesn’t guarantee that the check was cashed by the correct party, it does ensure that no one will be tampering with the amount on the check.
Send a restricted check. You can restrict what the recipient can do with the check by simply flipping the check over and writing “for deposit only to account of payee” in the endorsement section on the back of the check. This means that the check can’t be signed over to someone else and makes it much more difficult for anyone to cash the check unless they’re, well, the person whose name is on the check depositing it straight into their account.
Whenever I’m sending a check to anyone I don’t strongly trust, I always do this by default without any problems.
Make sure the check is well disguised within the envelope or package. If you’re sending it in an envelope, make sure that it’s a security envelope so that it can’t merely be held up to the light and read. A plain white envelope should never be used for sending any sort of financial document through the mail.
A better option is a bubble mailer, which will similarly restrict the ability to read the document and also severely restricts potential damage to the check or money order.
Of course, you can do both! Put the financial document in a security envelope, then pop that envelope into a bubble mailer. If you do this, fully address the inner envelope to maximize the chances that it still gets to its destination.
Put tracking on the envelope. No matter how you send it, you can get a tracking number for the envelope or package to ensure that it makes it to its destination. Again, this is a service that the post office can provide very inexpensively upon request. It usually simply involves applying a sticker to the outside of the envelope or package which is scanned upon delivery.
Send via certified mail. Another more secure option for sending money through the mail is to send it certified. This involves the postal service putting a special seal on the item that should only be broken by the recipient after signing for and providing identification for the item.
This usually requires the recipient to go to a post office with proof of identity to be able to sign for the certified letter, but it’s a very secure way of getting the item to its destination.
Double and triple-check that address before you send the envelope or package. Before you send any important documents through the mail, double and triple check the address you’re sending to. Getting a single character wrong can send the item to a completely different town or state and can even render the item lost, which would mean it’s essentially impossible to know for sure what happened to the check or money order unless it’s returned to you.
Here’s what I do. At an absolute baseline, I always write checks with indelible ink, write “for deposit only to account of payee” on the endorsement section on the back of the check, and use a security envelope. I basically won’t send anything through the mail without at least those minimal steps.
Unless I’m using a reply envelope with the address preprinted on it, I’ll request a delivery confirmation on the envelope.
As the payment size gets higher and as the trust I have in the recipient gets lower, the greater the number of security steps I take. For example, if I’m making a payment to an unknown entity for a product or service that’s not local, I’m probably going to use a money order or a cashier’s check just so my checking account information isn’t being shared with that person. If it is vitally important that the document is received by a certain time and delivered to a certain person, I won’t hesitate to use certified mail.
Remember, most security steps you take are just to ensure that you aren’t the proverbial “low hanging fruit.” None of these steps will make your envelope or package perfectly secure, but what they will do is make your envelope or package a lot less tempting than the other options in the mail. Which envelope is more likely to get swiped by a nefarious person: the envelope that can be seen through the light and reveals a check inside or the padded envelope with delivery confirmation on it? There’s going to be a lot more hassle (who knows what’s inside) and questions asked with the padded envelope, so it’s much more likely to be left alone.
That’s a good way to think of almost everything you do in terms of personal security. You’re not making everything perfectly secure. Rather, you’re making it just difficult enough that someone acting nefariously isn’t going to bother and will move on to someone else who isn’t taking those basic steps to make things a little more difficult. Use that approach with any security issue in your life (like passwords, for example) and you’ll avoid a lot of issues.
What do you do if the check doesn’t arrive? First of all, call your bank and have that specific check canceled, then send a new one to replace it. After that, keep a watchful eye on your checking account for a while to make sure that no unexpected expenses go through. If you do spot anything nefarious, contact your bank immediately as they’ll have a process in place to switch your account number and get everything fixed.
Don’t be afraid to send money through the mail, but be smart about it. Make sure that you’ve taken at least a few basic security steps and your money should arrive safe and sound.