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Your bank account number distinguishes your specific account from the other accounts held by your financial institution. Similarly, your routing number identifies the bank or credit union where the account resides. Together, these numbers are essential for making direct deposits, bill payments, automatic transfers and more.
But if these numbers get into the wrong hands, you could fall victim to severe financial fraud. If someone has your bank account and routing number, they could make unauthorized ACH transfers and payments, create counterfeit checks and even launder money through your account.
What Can Someone Do With Your Bank Account and Routing Number?
If someone has your bank account number, but not your routing number, the financial harm they can inflict is somewhat limited. For instance, it would be difficult to withdraw money from your account or create new checks without being able to identify which bank your account is at. But if someone has both your bank account and routing number, they can commit a wide range of fraudulent activities that could harm you financially, such as:
- Fraudulent payments, withdrawals and transfers: You've seen ACH transfers on your bank statement and may know they stand for the Automated Clearing House network that roughly 10,000 financial institutions use to process transactions domestically. Someone with ill intentions could use your bank account and routing numbers to make unauthorized payments, withdrawals and electronic funds transfers. Check your bank transactions regularly to spot any irregular activity and act on it before problems mount.
- Unauthorized purchases online: Scammers and criminals can run up charges quickly by using your bank account and routing number to make online purchases. Some online retailers make it even easier for criminals to fraudulently use your account by only requiring a bank account number to make purchases.
- Counterfeit checks: Someone can also use your bank account and routing numbers to create fake checks. They can then cash those checks or use them to pay for goods and services. Scammers can deposit funds into their own account either digitally using a smartphone or physically at a bank or ATM.
- Money laundering through your account: Contact your bank immediately if you notice an account deposit you don't recognize. Someone may be using your account to launder money obtained illegally.
- Identity theft: Criminals can use your banking information and any other personal data they collect to steal your identity. These schemes are often employed to open new credit cards, receive your tax returns and commit other unpleasant forms of fraud.
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What to Do When Someone Has Your Bank Account Number
Whether someone gains access to your bank account number through a phishing scam, data breach or other shady methods, it's essential to take action right away. If you suspect someone has your account information, consider the following tactics to help protect yourself against identity theft and financial damage.
Review Your Bank Statements
Scan through recent statements to spot any suspicious transactions. Make a list of the unauthorized transactions you find so you can share the activity with your bank. Consider setting up text or email alerts from your bank about potentially suspicious activity, including large purchases and cash withdrawals.
Contact Your Bank
If you spot unauthorized ACH transactions on your bank statement, you must notify your bank of the incident within 60 days to avoid paying for those charges. Explain the situation to a representative at your financial institution to prevent further fraudulent activity. While they investigate, the bank may freeze your account or cancel it and open a new account with fresh account information.
Protect Your Credit
Once you've reviewed your transaction history for fraudulent activity, it's wise to check your credit reports for other instances of fraud. Additionally, you have the right to freeze your credit file, which could make it harder for fraudsters to open debt accounts using your credit. Finally, you have the right to ask Experian to place a fraud alert on your credit report. The alert cautions lenders you could be a victim of identity theft and urges them to verify your identity before approving new credit.
Report the Fraud
It's also a good idea to file a fraud report through the Federal Trade Commission. That's the agency tasked with shutting down scammers, and they use these fraud reports to help them build their cases. If you're a victim of identity theft, report your case at IdentityTheft.gov.
While you're at it, consider filing a report with your local law enforcement. They may not investigate your case, but the report could help you dispute fraudulent transactions.
Change Your Passwords
Protect your bank account going forward by immediately changing your online banking password to a strong password and adding multifactor authentication. While you're at it, you may also want to change passwords to your other online accounts. Security experts often recommend changing your online passwords every three months as data breaches become more commonplace. The Identity Theft Resource Center reported a record high of 2,116 data compromises for the first three quarters of 2023, with signs pointing to continued breaches in the future.
How to Protect Your Bank Account Routing Number
Keep your bank account safe by being vigilant about protecting your banking information. Consider these tips to keep your bank account and routing number safe:
- Don't use your account and routing numbers to shop online. Ideally, use a credit card because they offer more protection than a debit card. Just be sure to pay your bill in full before the due date to avoid interest charges. Prepaid cards and money transfer apps are alternatives that don't require you to enter sensitive banking information on the checkout page.
- Don't give your account information to strangers. This one goes without saying, but it's possible to reveal your account information unknowingly. For example, don't use paper checks if more secure forms of payment are available since the account and routing numbers are listed at the bottom of the check. If you must send a check in the mail, wrap it in paper so this sensitive information isn't visible through the envelope.
- Don't enter banking information on unprotected sites. Only enter your bank account information on sites that employ HTTPS encryption. You can verify this by looking for HTTPS at the beginning of the site's URL or a lock icon on the address bar.
- Be aware of phishing scams. A phishing scam occurs when someone tries to trick you into revealing sensitive information to them, usually by email or over the phone. One common phishing trick is to send an email disguised to appear as your bank or another company you trust. These emails usually include a link that may appear legitimate. Once you click the link, you can be taken to a website that logs your keystrokes to capture sensitive information like your bank account login or account number. As a general rule, don't click on suspicious links. If you're unsure whether a link is legitimate, hover the mouse over the link to reveal the website address, which should help you determine its authenticity.
- Use strong and unique passwords to safeguard your accounts. Try to use long passwords; generally, the longer, the better. That's because hackers have tools that help them guess every possible password combination. According to ERMProtect, a hacker can crack a simple seven-character password that only uses numbers and letters in one day. By contrast, adding characters, including capital letters, could take up to seven years to crack.
Frequently Asked Questions
Generally, it isn't safe to share your bank account information, including your routing number, with anyone you don't know. The stakes are too high to trust your bank account and routing number to a stranger. Armed with this information, someone could fraudulently withdraw money from your account, use your information to create counterfeit checks or commit other fraudulent activity.
Someone with access to both your account number and routing number could withdraw money from your personal bank account. They could also use these account details to shop online, pay bills, create counterfeit checks or apply for new credit accounts.
Notify your bank or credit union's fraud department immediately when an unauthorized bank account transaction occurs. By reporting a fraudulent charge within two days of noticing it, your liability is limited to $50 in charges. Remember, you have 60 days to dispute transactions or you could be on the hook for the charges. The bank has 10 days to investigate your dispute.
The Bottom Line
Your bank account and routing number are essential for everyday banking, but if this sensitive information falls into the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc on your finances and your credit. Take steps to protect yourself on both fronts.
Safeguard your bank account by regularly monitoring your statements for fraudulent activity and employing the tactics above to shield your sensitive information. Free credit monitoring lets you receive real-time alerts of changes to your personal information and suspicious activity on your credit report so you can take action if you need to.