Check Kiting: What It Is and How to Avoid Potential Scams

By Mike Zaccardi, CMT, CFA · June 25, 2024 · 7 minute read

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Check Kiting: What It Is and How to Avoid Potential Scams

Check kiting is the illegal act of writing bad checks using bank accounts with insufficient funds. Common variants include retail check kiting and securities-based kiting. Consumers and business owners should know about this fraudulent practice to protect themselves.

While mistakenly writing a bad check is often not a serious issue, there can be harsh penalties, including prison time, for intentionally engaging in check kiting. Knowing how to avoid this scam can save people time and money. As the financial world grows more digital and mobile, this age-old illegal practice still remains a risk.

What Is Check Kiting?

Check kiting is the illegal practice of writing bad checks on accounts with insufficient funds. While credit cards and mobile payment methods grow more and more common, checks are still used today, so kiting remains an issue.

This fraudulent activity seeks to take advantage of what’s known as the bank’s float period, which is the time it takes a financial institution to determine if an account has funds to clear the check. If the funds are there, then the amount is cleared and made available for the payee to use. Nefarious individuals engage in check kiting to essentially take money from a bank by pulling cash from accounts that do not have enough funds to cover the checks.

Kiting is not only done through banks and checking accounts, but also with retailers and even individual companies. Retail kiting is performed by cashing a check on an account with insufficient funds to purchase goods and services. There are other variations that financial con artists attempt to pull off, too; more details on these are below.

How Does Check Kiting Work?

Banks and credit unions likely know about check kiting, but business owners and retailers might wonder about this practice. Kiting is the illegal practice of obtaining credit and cash from accounts and other financial instruments. Examples of kiting are when a scammer writes a bad check or uses securities to gain leverage while skirting regulations.

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Real-Life Examples of Kiting

Perhaps the most common kiting example is within the banking world. With a checking account, for instance, a scammer might write a check for $100 on an account that only has a $20 available balance, then deposit that check in a separate account. The $100 is then quickly withdrawn from the second account, leaving the first account overdrawn. In this case, the individual took advantage of the bank’s clearing window to steal money.

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Variants of Check Kiting

There are other examples of this malicious practice in the business world. Scammers are often highly creative in their practices to swindle cash. Below are a few variants of check kiting to watch out for; also protect yourself by making sure that the financial institution where you hold your bank account has top-notch fraud protection to help keep your cash safe from scammers’ activities.

Circular Check Kiting

Circular check kiting is among the most common forms of kiting. A financial con artist will use multiple bank accounts, maybe even at different banks, to illegally take advantage of the bank account float period. As described above, the scammer will pull real cash from non-existent money. While cashing checks without a bank account is a legal practice, doing so with no funds backing it up is kiting.

Circular kiting works by writing fraudulent checks on real accounts to gain unauthorized credit. The fraudster makes a deposit with a check they know will bounce, but quickly withdraws the cash, leaving the banks with overdrawn accounts. With circular check kiting, the individual might get extra creative and use different names or even several identities to hide their actions.

Retail-Based Check Kiting

Retail-based check kiting happens when an unscrupulous person swindles cash from other types of businesses. It may involve the illegal act of writing bad checks around town. A financial huckster might seek to purchase goods and services by writing a check on an account with insufficient funds. The con artist takes or receives the products, but then the check bounces and the money never makes it back to the retailer.

Another method involves requesting cash back on a bad check at the register. A second check may be used to cover the first check to stay ahead of the bank float period. This can facilitate a series of illegal retail acts. If a retailer becomes aware of this scam, they can try to issue a stop payment on the check. This might help prevent illegal activity, but it’s no guarantee.

Kiting With Securities

Kiting is also a problem in the investing world. Some firms may illegally use the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) settlement window to keep a short position in the market without actually purchasing the securities. (Selling short means an investor anticipates that a stock’s price will drop and they can buy low and make a profit.) The SEC’s three-day settlement period requires timely delivery of transactions and securities. If an individual exploits settlement delays in order to transfer unavailable funds, they are engaging in kiting. A trading company that does not receive securities within the three-day period is required to buy shares in the market.

Corporate Check Kiting

Corporate check kiting typically happens when a company doesn’t have the usual limits on deposits. Large sums can be put in an account. Deceitful managers or owners of a firm might take advantage of this; they might deposit bad checks and then immediately spend the cash, before it’s apparent that the check won’t clear.

Consequences of Check Kiting

Obviously, check kiting, like other forms of bank fraud, can cause financial loss and a considerable amount of stress, anger, and frustration. There are a range of consequences to the illegal activity of check kiting. Penalties for this type of financial fraud vary depending on how severe the case is:

•   Banks might restrict someone’s account features or close their account.

•   Certain scams can result in misdemeanor or even felony charges.

•   Fines and prison sentences can happen after a severe crime.

Avoid Check Kiting Scams

While there is no sure way to avoid becoming a victim of malicious illegal financial activity, there are steps you can take to reduce your chances. These include:

•   Know how to identify a fraudulent check and a check’s expiration date

•   Be aware of customers and individuals with whom you do business. Before you accept a check or deposit it into your bank account, take steps to verify that checks are good.

•   Avoid wiring funds to people you do not know.

•   Use a voided check’s information to verify the account is real.

Also, be cautious about scam scenarios in which someone sends you a check that overpays you and then requests that you quickly return the difference to them. You could wind up the victim of fraud.

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Why is check kiting illegal?

Check kiting is illegal because it fraudulently uses financial products to gain unauthorized money or credit. It typically employs checks for which there are insufficient funds (that is, checks that will bounce rather than clear).

Why is it called kiting?

The term “kiting” is thought to come from the nineteenth-century practice of bond issuance that had no real financial backing. It was said that the only thing keeping the bonds afloat was “air” and nothing else. “Check kiting” grew in prevalence during the 1920s, perhaps as retail banking became more common.

What is cash kiting?

Cash kiting takes advantage of banks through the use of two separate accounts. A fraudster might write a check on one account for more than its available balance and deposit it in the other account. The individual takes advantage of the bank float period, which is the processing time for funds to clear. During cash kiting, both accounts appear to have more funds than they truly do. The fraudster can profit from drawing cash from the accounts when it’s not really available.

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