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What Happens When You Bounce A Check?

A bounced check can lead to fees, a frozen account and more serious consequences.

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It can happen to anyone: You write a check for the rent or a new sofa, not realizing you don’t have enough money in your checking account.

Then, when the recipient tries to deposit the check, it fails, or “bounces.”

Under the best of circumstances, you’ll need to make good on what you owe and possibly pay a fee. But bouncing a check can also have legal ramifications.

What is a bounced check?

A bounced check is one that’s returned to the issuing bank because it can’t be processed, usually due to “nonsufficient funds.” That means there wasn’t enough money in the check writer’s account to cover the amount of the check.

There are other reasons a check may bounce, including:

  • The checking account has been closed
  • The account holder stopped payment 
  • The check was proven to be fraudulent
  • The check has missing or incorrect info (You forgot to sign it, made it out to the wrong person, or the written and numeric amounts don’t match.)
  • The check has too many scratch outs or is illegible
  • The check is “stale,” meaning it wasn’t deposited within six months

What happens after you bounce a check?

If you write a check for more money than you have in your account, you’ll typically have to pay a fee (or more than one). Here are a few of the fees you may incur:

Nonsufficient fund fees

Traditionally, the person whose check bounced has to pay their bank a penalty charge, known as a nonsufficient fund (NSF) fee. In recent years, some larger banks have discontinued charging NSF fees for some accounts, including Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and PNC. 

For those that still issue them, the average NSF fee is $34, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Overdraft fees

In some cases, your bank may opt to cover the payment but charge you a penalty. Overdraft fees vary depending on your bank, but according to the CFPB, the average is $35.

As with nonsufficient fund fees, a growing number of banks and credit unions have eliminated or reduced overdraft fees.

Merchant fees

The check writer may also incur a bounced-check charge from the merchant who accepted the check. Most states cap merchant fees between $20 and $50. (In Florida, Georgia and Ohio, the maximum penalty is a percentage of the check amount.) 

What to do if you bounce a check

Once you are notified that your check has been declined, there are a few immediate steps to take.

Contact your bank. Let your bank know you’re aware of the problem, find out what fees you’ve been assessed and see how you can address the situation.

Contact the recipient. If you fail to make good on a bounced check, the recipient can take you to court, so let them know you’re sorry and working to rectify the situation. Find out if they’re planning on resubmitting the check or if the lack of funds has caused any problems. Offer to reimburse them another way, such as cash, money order or online payment app. 

Settle your debt quickly. Do whatever you can to get more funds into your account to cover your other transactions. If you don’t replace the amount soon enough, your bank may freeze or even close your account.

Who are bounced checks reported to? 

If you bounce a check with a business, it may be reported to TeleCheck, which maintains a database of individuals who have had checks returned. Once that happens, another company may refuse to accept a check from you. 

Your bank may also report the incident to ChexSystems, which issues consumers scores that are similar to credit ratings. A negative report can prevent you from being able to open a new bank account for up to five years.

Does bouncing a check affect my credit score?

Banks don’t report bounced checks to credit agencies like Experian, Equifax or TransUnion, so it won’t have a direct impact on your credit score. 

But if you were writing the check to pay a debt, like a credit card bill or mortgage, the fact that you didn’t make a timely payment could be reflected on your credit report.

Is it a crime to bounce a check?

It is illegal to write a check that you know will bounce. Typically, it’s classified as a misdemeanor, but it can be elevated to a felony depending on the amount involved.

Criminal charges may be filed if authorities believe your bounced check was intentional fraud. For example, multiple checks written on an account that is closed or has insufficient funds are an indication of fraud.

How can I avoid bouncing a check? 

To avoid writing bad checks, take these precautions:

Monitor your account balances. Keeping a close watch on how much you have in your checking account is the easiest way to avoid having a check bounce. 

Set up alerts. Download your bank’s mobile app and set up notifications when your balance reaches a certain threshold or when you have a regular payment coming up. 

Add overdraft protection. You can link your checking account to another account or a line of credit, which the bank can then draw on to cover any checks written for more than your current checking balance. You may have to pay an overdraft protection transfer fee, but it’s usually a lot less than a nonsufficient fund or overdraft charge.

Use other forms of payment. Certified checks, cashier’s checks and money orders are all protected from bouncing because the funds are verified and reserved.

What happens if I deposit a check that bounces?

If you deposit a check that doesn’t clear, you won’t be charged an NSF or overdraft fee, but you might have to pay a returned check fee.

In addition, it’s your responsibility to recoup payment from the check writer. If it’s someone you know, it may be as easy as asking them to Venmo you or give you cash.

If not, you may have to send a demand letter. Include the amount of the check, the day it was written and any fees you incurred. 

And your bank should mail you a copy of the check and the reason it was declined, which you’ll also want to keep. 

Both will come in handy if you have to pursue legal action, according to Experian.  

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article was assisted by an AI engine. This version has been substantially updated by a staff writer.

Dan is a writer on CNET's How-To team. His byline has appeared in Newsweek, NBC News, The New York Times, Architectural Digest, The Daily Mail and elsewhere. He is a crossword junkie and is interested in the intersection of tech and marginalized communities.
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