A check is a check
-- whatever it's printed on
if you won the lottery and you got one of those giant cardboard
checks -- could you deposit it at the bank?
Yes, if the proper information were written
In fact, a check doesn't necessarily have to
be written on paper. There are legends, probably apocryphal, of
checks written on the backs of shirts (by tax protesters) and on
watermelon rinds (by goodness knows whom -- maybe madcap farmers),
even on skin. If they were written in the right format, they could
"It has to contain certain features, and it
can be written on anything," says Brian Black, managing director
of operations and technology for the Bank Administration Institute.
"As long as it has the elements, the surface doesn't make a difference.
A check is an order to pay someone, that's all it is.
"I've heard of things," Black continues. "That
at one time someone wrote a check on someone else's back. Pieces
of cloth -- I've heard of that, too." He has never been able to
confirm these tales.
So let's say some smartypants decides to protest
his tax bill by writing a check on "the shirt off his back" and
mailing it to the IRS. As long as it has the account owner's name,
the date, the words "Pay to the order of" followed by the payee's
name, the dollar amount in numerical and in written form, the name
of the bank where the account is held (along with the bank's city
and state) and the signature of the account owner, it's valid.
Just because something is possible doesn't mean
it's advisable. Only a moron would antagonize the IRS by writing
a check on the back of a shirt: might as well request an annual
audit for life. Still, the question makes the IRS nervous. When
I asked an IRS spokesman whether anyone had ever sent a check written
on the back of a shirt, he said he would find out. Then he called
back immediately and asked if that was all this story would be about.
No. It's also about magnetic ink, a check-printing
goof that almost landed an innocent Ohio woman in jail and those
big cardboard checks that lotteries and sweepstakes hand out.
Finicky about ink
When you write a check, it enters a hidden,
Rube Goldberg world -- especially if you mail it cross-country, as
you do when you pay your credit card bill. An employee of a bank or
an independent "lockbox" operation opens the envelope and prints the
amount in the bottom right corner of the check with magnetic ink.
From there it might go from the recipient's bank to a Federal Reserve
regional bank to another Federal Reserve bank to the payee's bank.
It might be packed in various boxes and bags and transported on trucks,
airliners or even trains.
This complex system processes 60 billion checks
a year. Laid end-to-end, 60 billion checks would create a huge mess
at the first puff of wind, and America's payment structure abhors
a mess. So, to speed up the flow of checks and eliminate messes,
the American Bankers Association and the American National Standards
Institute publish standards that dictate sizes, paper thickness,
background colors and other qualities. The standards allow two main
check sizes: the ones you carry in your checkbook, and the bigger
ones that you probably get if your paycheck is printed by a machine.
Standards govern the placement of those numbers
and symbols printed on the check's bottom edge. They are printed
in magnetic ink that scanning machines can read in about three seconds.
Each character has its proper place, starting from right to left.
The check's amount is printed at the right, the check number is
printed to the left of that, the account number to the left of that,
and the bank's routing number to the left of that.
Scanning machines are finicky about the placement
of these numbers and symbols. That's why, when you order checks
for the first time from a discount printer, you are asked to mail
a voided check with your order form: to make sure the routing and
account numbers are printed in the proper places. If they're off,
scanners will reject them and someone will have to sort the check
by hand. Machines reject about 1 percent of checks, which means
that people have to sort about 600 million checks by hand annually
-- and that costs the banking industry millions of dollars.
A machine might reject a check for reasons
besides improper placement of the numbers at the bottom. The paper
might be torn or wrinkled, or the magnetic ink might not be magnetic
Banks want to exert some control over the quality
of their customers' checks, and that's one reason they make it so
easy to reorder checks from approved printers. At least one bank,
USABancshares, actually discourages customers from buying checks
from any other source but its approved printer, Deluxe, and threatens
"to charge you a fee for problems we have in processing items that
were not supplied by our approved vendors."
Plainly a mistake
Because the standards specify paper thickness
and acceptable background colors, it's almost impossible to photocopy
a check and pass it successfully. Any gum-popping cashier can spot
a check copied onto ordinary paper.
But what if the bank accidentally prints a check
on ordinary paper? Trouble like an innocent Cleveland-area woman
got into in February, 2001.
According to The Plain Dealer, the woman
tried to cash two child-support checks at a grocery store. To her
surprise she was hauled into the police station where she was fingerprinted
and photographed in front of her 10-year-old daughter, who had accompanied
her to the store.
Turns out it was a mistake: Bank One accidentally
had printed the checks on plain white paper. They looked like photocopied
fakes, so the store's cashier called police. A bank spokesman told
the newspaper that the checks had been printed on a splice of plain
paper in a large roll of standard check stock.
Were those valid checks? Absolutely, if the
required information were printed on them -- even if they weren't
printed on check stock.
When a lottery or sweepstakes or golf tournament
winner gets one of those giant checks printed on cardboard or posterboard,
it's obvious that the check doesn't conform to standards of size or
"They're just for show," says Samantha Better,
spokeswoman for iWon, the Web portal that gave away $1 million in
a monthly sweepstakes. "You can't cash them. We give them a normal
She says one giant check was ruined when it
was bent in shipping, so the company kept that one and it hangs
in the office. Most winners, she says, keep their giant check as
But just suppose that a deranged person wanted
to deposit the giant check and keep the paper check as a souvenir?
"If they have all the elements, they can be
legal tender," says Black, the Bank Administration Institute managing
So if you really, really wanted to, you could
deposit it. And the IRS could deposit a check written on the back
of a shirt, if the payer refused to act like a grown-up and write
a real check. The same if a drunk wrote you a check on a cocktail
napkin. If all the required information is there, it's valid.
But when you take something like that to the
"What they probably would do is create a substitute
document for it," Black says, "to put through the paper processing
So there's no escaping paper.
-- Updated: March