What’s the safest way to pay: check or debit card?

Shot of a female customer making wireless or contactless payment using debit or credit card. Woman paying for groceries at checkout in organic store.

If you’ve signed up for a checking account in the last five years, chances are you were offered a checkbook and a debit card. For some people, writing checks is the best way for them to pay their bills—nearly $26 trillion in checks were written in 2018, according to the Federal Reserve’s most recent payments study. In some cases, a check is the only method of payment accepted. Yet many others rely almost entirely on their debit card for transactions.

In an age where hacking is increasingly common, we are always looking for ways to secure our information, especially as it relates to finances. So, when it comes to payment methods, what’s the safest way to pay?

Is paying with a debit card safe?

Overall, paying with a debit card is safe and there are measures in place to prevent fraud. When swiping your debit card to purchase things like groceries and gas, you are often required to enter your unique personal identification number or PIN. Additionally, financial institutions are constantly watching for signs of potentially fraudulent transactions. Some even offer mobile alerts as soon as they notice suspicious charges or unusual activity on your account. If your debit card is backed by Visa® or MasterCard, you’re also protected by a Zero Liability policy.

Of course, there are risks of using your debit card. Scammers can steal your information through public wireless internet access as well as through “skimming” devices attached to machines.

Even with potential risks, debit cards can be extremely useful. When picking up your weekly groceries, it is much easier and more efficient to swipe your debit card than to write a check. And, because of their direct connection to your checking account, you are effectively making your purchases in cash but with a record of your purchase on your monthly statement. Debit cards are also great for those who are looking to avoid debt.

How to keep debit card transactions safe

Debit cards are linked directly with your checking account and if stolen or hacked, a thief can gain access to all of the funds in your account. Whether you’re making payments online or in person, there are several ways to combat fraud.

You should always check your bank statements often and review transactions. If you notice anything amiss, report any unauthorized transactions immediately to your financial institution. You may also consider filing a police report, which can provide extra support against fraudulent charges.

Your PIN is your primary method of accessing your debit card, so be sure to keep this to yourself. Do not use this number for other things, like your phone passcode, and don’t write it down anywhere. If you need cash, be sure to use ATMs at financial institutions instead of public spaces, like convenience stores. These machines are less likely to be tampered with or have “skimming” devices attached.

When shopping online, check your browser for a security symbol, such as an unbroken key or a padlock, on each website to ensure encryption. Lastly, when accessing sensitive information like bank accounts and making online purchases, it is important to use a password-protected wireless signal. This reduces the risk of hackers stealing your password and account information.

Is paying with a check safe?

Generally speaking, paying with checks is still fairly safe thanks to security measures like watermarking and specialized gradient backgrounds. But, a check is still a piece of paper with all of your personal and financial information openly displayed. In cases like mail theft or a home invasion, there is nothing stopping someone from accessing your money—or worse.

Your risk is amplified if you don’t specify a recipient on the check—writing a check to “cash” is able to be cashed by essentially anyone. Moreover, older generations are more likely to still write paper checks. As they are often the targets of financial fraud, check writing can compound their risk.

That said, there are definitely times when a check is preferable. If you’re making an important payment, like a down payment on a house or school tuition, a paper check might be a good option, as they offer a paper trail for your record-keeping. Additionally, you can see copies of checks you’ve written on your monthly statement while some institutions allow you to track the journey of your check via your bank. You may also prefer a check when you want to send a gift, like for a wedding or graduation.

How to prevent check fraud

There are many ways to reduce your risk of fraud and safeguard your information. Always fill out the payee line and full, current date on every check you write using ink. Be sure to keep your checks in a safe place—not in your purse or wallet, which could be lost or stolen.

When ordering your checks, limit the amount of information pre-printed on your check. You should only include your name and address. Any additional information required by a merchant, such as driver’s license number or date of birth, can be written onto the check with ink. And of course, you should monitor your bank account activity regularly.

One last way to reduce the chance of check fraud is reducing your use of checks. Enrolling in your credit union or bank’s online payment service, like Georgia’s Own Bill Pay, can help you manage your expenses easily and without the clutter of paper bills.

Wildcard opponent: mobile payments & digital wallets

Nowadays, it’s almost as easy to pay using your phone instead of a check or a debit card. Many smartphones now offer digital wallets like Google Pay™ or Apple Pay® that can be used on phones and smartwatches. But can you trust your phone with your financial information? The answer is yes! There are multiple layers of security protecting digital wallet transactions, including the app, the retail outlet, the credit card company, and the bank or credit union that issued the card. Digital wallets use tokenization to encode information, making it unidentifiable.

Of course, you should always take precautions with your personal information, even on your phone. Using a separate lock code for your phone and digital wallet app is one way to keep your information safe. And just like entering your PIN code for your debit card, be sure to watch for prying eyes when unlocking your devices.

Final thoughts:

  • Both checks and debit cards are safe to use thanks to different methods of fraud protection.
  • Checks may be better for larger purchases that require a paper trail or for gifts.
  • Debit cards are better for everyday purchases, like groceries and gas.

Unfortunately, no payment method is 100% fraud-proof.

There are always going to be times when one payment method is preferable to another, and sometimes paying with a check is inevitable. That doesn’t mean you’re automatically at risk of fraud. Stay ahead of hackers or fraudulent charges by being cautious about how and where you share your information and monitoring your transactions through your monthly statements or online banking platform.


  1. Brenda A Williams

    I’m trying to open a checking /debit card account, but it doesn’t show my county listed! Catoosa County is the county that I live in, Ringgold, Georgia 30736

    • Ashley D.

      Brenda — If you work in any of the counties listed, or if you work for any of our partner companies, you can qualify for membership that way as well. Here is a full list of our partner companies.

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